Author pays a visit to Cardozo High for talk on storytelling

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After Riker’s Island, Cardozo High School was a breeze.

Author Paul Volponi paid a visit to students at the Bayside school to discuss his book “Black and White,” which the ninth- and 10th-graders had read in Nancy Orens’ reading and writing seminar.

“It’s been said that kids who don’t like to read read my books,” Volponi declared.

The novel is about two best friends: Marcus, who is black, and Eddie, who is white, are both entertaining basketball scholarships to New York City colleges. When they turned to armed robbery and shoot one of their victims, the book highlights the disparate treatment the two young men receive based on their races.

Volponi said he was inspired to write the book by the students, primarily black and Hispanic, he taught for six years on Rikers Island.

“These high school kids had great stories, great feelings. I wanted to tell their stories,” he said.

The author began his chat in the school’s library by asking who enjoyed reading in their leisure time, to which only one or two of the 30 or so students responded by raising their hands.

“You guys are really good storytelle­rs,” he said, pointing out how well-informed the students were about the narrative processes of television, music, commercials and video games. “You’re all really well-versed in how stories happen, even though none of you raised your hand saying you’d go home and read a book.”

Volponi used a PowerPoint presentation to try to coax from the students their knowledge of language and narrative. He asked several students to read a slide with the words, “cold, rain, snow and wind” on them, followed by another slide reading “alarm, clock, set, wind.”

Ninth-grader Melissa Ellis was the first student to pronounce the last word on each slide differently.

“See, it’s a tricky language,” the author said with a grin.

Volponi explained how Marcus’ sister in the novel, Sabrina, was named after his daughter, and how many of the situations the characters encountered were ones he had experienced growing up in the neighborhood near Rikers.

“It’s funny what will touch you, with all the tragedy we see,” he said.

Ninth-grader Geneva Robertson was one of the more active students during the question-and-answer portion of the author’s visit, and she asked Volponi about his characters’ intents and motivations and the meanings behind some of the book’s elements.

The two discussed a scene near the end of the novel in which Volponi explained that a large crack in the basketball court’s surface represented the uneven ground the two characters were playing on.

“I thought it was a good book,” she said. “The one question I had about the crack, he really clarified it for me.”

Ellis said she did not particularly enjoy the book, but thought Volponi’s approach to writing was interesting.

“I don’t really like to read for fun,” she said. “But if someone would write an interesting book the way he was talking about, I’d be the first to read it.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 10:50 am, October 12, 2011
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