Sometimes, when we teach literature, it can be beneficial to students to study multiple works by the same author. This way they can study the ways in which authors address certain issues, consistencies in subject matter and writing style (or inconsistencies as the case may be), and they can get a real feel for the world(s) that a particular author chooses to portray. There are, in fact, a myriad of benefits to having students read multiple works by the same author. When working with teens, it is often best to do this with literature that speaks to them (i.e. YA or Young Adult literature). Here is an example of one such author and several works he has written that could be highly useful in the classroom.
Paul Volponi is the author of ten different novels (plus one to be released in March of 2015), all written for an adolescent (teenaged) audience. He is also a journalist. Much of his written work originates from his experiences living and working in New York City (he grew up not far from Rikers Island). He worked with adolescents incarcerated on Rikers Island (a New York jail complex located on an island by the same name), is also a teacher in New York City, and worked in a drug treatment facility with addicted-youth. Many, though not all, of his novels revolve around inner-city New York and the difficulties of navigating such a harsh environment. His works, no matter where they are set, often confront issues of race and racism in one form or another.
Black and White
- Black and White is the story of two best friends, Marcus (Black) and Eddie (White). The two do nearly everything together and are best known as “Black and White” as they are the dynamic stars of their high school basketball team. Though they attend the same school, their backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses are quite distinct. Marcus lives in a tiny apartment in what could be called the “ghetto” with his mother and sister, while Eddie lives in a nicer neighborhood with both parents and his sister. Though their lives are different, neither young man is flush with cash, and therefore they decide together, to rob people in order to have some extra cash. Eddie has access to his deceased grandfather’s handgun, and the two embark down a criminal path together. But one cold night, the robbery goes terribly wrong when the gun accidentally goes off in Eddie’s hand. The victim lives, but is able to identify Marcus (as they are both black and the victim happens to be a bus driver in Marcus’s neighborhood). Though eventually Eddie is also arrested, Eddie manages to get off virtually scot-free whereas Marcus does not fare so well. The novel explores injustice in the criminal justice system and the prevalence of racism in the system, among other topics.
- This novel is narrated in the first person alternating every-other chapter between Marcus and Eddie’s perspectives. This allows readers to get inside each of their heads to understand different perspectives. In essence, this means of narrating the novel keeps the narrative from being too one-sided, because it would be easy to over-simplify the events that take place vilifying characters when they are not necessarily to blame. All-in-all, with the interesting use of perspective and the way in which the story is told, I would definitely recommend this book for use in the classroom. It is essential for students to understand that when it comes to any type of conflict, there are always multiple perspectives. This novel does an excellent job of representing different perspectives and exploring issues such as racism in the criminal justice system (or one could argue that it’s more classism). Also of great use with this novel are the discussion questions at the back of the book which could be used as essay prompts, debate topics, or simply as classroom discussion questions.
Rucker Park Setup
- Rucker Park Setup is a novel about two things, a murder and street-ball (basketball) in Rucker Park (a extremely famous street-ball court in Harlem where several NBA players have battled it out on the court with the best street players New York has to offer). The story is mainly narrated by Mackey (also known as “Hold the Mustard” on the court) and revolves around the murder of his best friend and teammate J.R., and the Rucker Park Tournament championship game. Interspersed throughout are brief one to two page portions narrated by one of the other characters that are all in some way involved in the game and the murder. Mackey witnessed J.R.’s murder and is involved in a gambling scandal that requires him to maintain a certain point-spread in the game. Throughout Mackey reels internally not knowing what to do and who to give his loyalty to, until everything comes to a head in the final moments of the championship game. The story involves issues such as truth, loyalty, morality (after all, Mackey accepts a large sum of money to maintain a point-spread in the game), blame and consequences.
- Much of the novel involves detailed descriptions of the championship basketball game (such as I faked left, then went right for an easy lay-up, etc…) which even to a basketball fan like me got old after a few pages. It would likely be difficult for the students to feel involved in the novel if they are not interested in basketball and especially if they have no knowledge of the street basketball culture (streetball is quite different from college or NBA basketball). The novel certainly has its moments, and it isn’t until the last moments of the game that J.R.’s killer is revealed, so there is some level of suspense throughout, but I would not recommend this book as a required text for the entire classroom. If, however, you have students who are knowledgeable about and interested in basketball, then this would be an excellent book to recommend to those students.
- Response is a novel about Noah who is the victim of a hate crime. Noah and two friends enter a predominantly Italian neighborhood with the intention of stealing a car (Noah is trying to make a large sum of money fast to help support his infant daughter). When the theft goes wrong, the three young men abandon their plans and go for pizza at a local place. There they run into two Italian-American youth who antagonize the three African-American men. Later as Noah and his friends are walking home, the two young men from the pizzeria along with another boy attack the African-American boys. Noah trips and falls and the three Italian-American boys surround him screaming racial epithets and beat his skull with an aluminum baseball bat, rip out his diamond stud, and steal his sneakers. The three Italian-American boys are apprehended, Noah recovers, and the rest of the novel revolves around the after-effects of the crime for Noah and the two neighborhoods involved (including the criminal justice system’s dealings with the three Italian-American boys).
- This novel is a powerful read and shows the grave effects of racism firsthand. In true Volponi fashion, the novel is mainly narrated by Noah, but at the end of the majority of the chapters, another perspective is provided, oftentimes Charlie Scat (the baseball bat-wielder), and even includes newspaper articles and the like. This multi-perspective approach serves this novel well and increases its effectiveness in addressing racism, racial violence, the criminal justice system and the ways in which crimes are defined and why. Volponi also includes the issue of teen parenthood in the novel as well as questions of defining masculinity and the power that ignorance and hatred can have on society. The major issue with this book would be the myriad of racial epithets included in the text. However their inclusion is essential in the narrative and plays an important role in addressing issues (such as the prevalence in popular Black culture of the “n” word and the effects that its prevalence may have on society).
As you can see, Paul Volpani’s novels revolve around similar worlds though the stories themselves are unique and distinctive. Through the exploration of several of his novels, students can delve into writing style, scene, theme, genre, etc…having the consistency of all books being written by the same author. Try this in your classroom and see students respond to the coursework in a whole new way!