Writer, journalist, and educator. Teacher of reading and writing at Rikers Island, NY, 1992-98, and day drug treatment centers in New York, NY, 1998-2004. The Blood Horse, former New York correspondent.
Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction, 2002, for Rikers; American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults nomination, International Reading Association Young-Adult Novel of the Year designation, and Quick Pick for reluctant readers, all 2005, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, and Booklist Top Ten Sports Books for Young Adults designation, both 2006, and Texas Library Association selection, 2006-07, all for Black and White.
Rikers, Black Heron Press (Seattle, WA), 2002.
Black and White, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
Rooftop, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
Rucker Park Setup, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to Associated Press, and to periodicals, including New York Post.
During the 1990s Paul Volponi worked at Rikers Island Educational Facility, a school for incarcerated teens that was established on Rikers Island in 1959. "The job was incredibly rewarding, and eye opening," the author recalled on his home page. "Unfortunately, one of the most striking elements on Rikers Island is race." The treatment of African Americans, as opposed to whites, within the U.S. justice system struck Volponi as unequal, and in his books for young adults he addresses issues of race, justice, and equality.
Volponi's first novel, Rikers, is set on Rikers Island and tells the story of seventeen-year-old inmate Martin Stokes. Known as Forty, which is the number of the bed to which he is assigned, Martin faces violence from other inmates on a daily basis. Eventually, his face is slashed by a fellow prisoner. Given the opportunity for revenge, Martin must decide how this decision will affect the rest of his life. Rikers received the Black Heron Press Award for Social Awareness in 2002.
Marcus Brown and Eddie Russo, best friends despite their racial differences, are the protagonists of Black and White. Both rising stars in basketball, the two teens have earned scholarships to play ball in college. Unfortunately, they decide to risk it all in order to gain some extra spending money by holding people up. When Eddie accidently shoots an African-American man, Marcus takes the fall for both of them, landing in prison while Eddie goes off to college. "Social conflicts, basketball fervor, and tough personal choices make this title a gripping story," wrote Gerry Larson in School Library Journal. As a Publishers Weekly critic noted, the novel's "fast-paced action, vivid on-court scenes and gritty, natural dialogue make this a page-turner of a tale." While a Kirkus Reviews contributor called Rikers "hugely discussable," Gillian Engberg wrote in Booklist that the characters' "authentic voices … will draw in both strong and reluctant readers."
In Rooftop Clay is sent to a drug treatment center after he is caught with a bag of marijuana. At the rehabilitation center, the African-American teen is reunited with his cousin Addison, a young addict who has no intentions of cleaning up or ending his drug-dealing career. Despite his own decision to stop doing drugs, Clay admires his cousin, and when Addison is killed during a rooftop chase by a White officer, Clay has to make a decision: either tell the truth about his cousin's death or side with activists attempting to paint the shooting as an example of racially motivated police brutality. While finding Rooftop "less cynical" than Black and White, a Kirkus Reviews contributor added that Volponi's novel "follows closely in the steps of the first." Holly Koelling called the novel a "thoughtfully crafted, deceptively simple story" in her Booklist review, and Paula Rohrlick, writing in Kliatt, deemed it "gritty and believable."
Volponi's fourth novel was inspired by his love of New York City's park basketball culture. In Rucker Park Setup Mackey (a.k.a. Hold the Mustard) is playing in the championship game of the famed Rucker Park Basketball Tournament in Harlem. His best friend, J.R., was killed on the same court in front of Mackey just a few weeks before. However, Mackey, who is betting against his own team, has yet to come forward and identify the teacher. J.R.'s father is refereeing the game, and the killer is watching the action, too, believing Mackey does not have the guts to expose him.
His own experiences on Rikers Island, as well as living in New York City, have influenced Volponi's decision to focus his books on racial inequality and criminal justice. Discussing the process involved in writing Black and White, he explained on his home page: "I'm satis- fied that I can channel what I've experienced and what I feel into books for young adults."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklinks, September 1, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of Black and White, p. 116; May, 2006, Laurie Miller Hornik, review of Black and White, p. 28.
Booklist, April 15, 2006, Holly Koelling, review of Rooftop, p. 46.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2005, review of Black and White, p. 484; June 1, 2006, review of Rooftop, p. 582.
Kliatt, May, 2006, Paula Rohrlick, review of Rooftop, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, June 20, 2005, review of Black and White, p. 78.
School Library Journal, June, 2005, Gerry Larson, review of Black and White, p. 170.
Paul Volponi Home Page,http://www.paulvolponibooks.com (November 26, 2006).
Penguin Group Web Site,http://us.penguingroup.com/ (November 30, 2006), "Paul Volponi."