Playing the Cards You're Dealt

by Varian Johnson (Author)

Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

"With a deft hand, Johnson shows us there's no such thing as too young when it comes to questioning big ideas like manhood, or even family." -Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling author of Look Both Ways and Stamped

Literary powerhouse and Coretta Scott King Honor- and Boston Globe / Horn Book Honor-winning author of The Parker Inheritance Varian Johnson explores themes of toxic masculinity and family legacy in this heartfelt, hopeful story of one boy discovering what it really means to be a man.


Ten-year-old Anthony Joplin has made it to double digits! Which means he's finally old enough to play in the spades tournament every Joplin Man before him seems to have won. So while Ant's friends are stressing about fifth grade homework and girls, Ant only has one thing on his mind: how he'll measure up to his father's expectations at the card table.

Then Ant's best friend gets grounded, and he's forced to find another spades partner. And Shirley, the new girl in his class, isn't exactly who he has in mind. She talks a whole lot of trash -- way more than his old partner. Plus, he's not sure that his father wants him playing with a girl. But she's smart and tough and pretty, and knows every card trick in the book. So Ant decides to join forces with Shirley -- and keep his plans a secret.

Only it turns out secrets are another Joplin Man tradition. And his father is hiding one so big it may tear their family apart...

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Starred Review
"A story about showing great courage and perseverance when life gets shuffled."

Review quotes

Awards and Praise for The Parker Inheritance:

A Coretta Scott King Author Honor winner

A Boston Globe / Horn Book Honor winner

Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year

BookPage Best Books of the Year

Horn Book Fanfare Best Books of the Year

NPR Best Books of the Year

New York Public Library Top Ten Books of the Year

Chicago Public Library Best Books of the Year

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

Boston Globe Best Books of the Year

Parents Magazine Best Books of the Year

Powerful... Johnson writes about the long shadows of the past with such ambition that any reader with a taste for mystery will appreciate the puzzle Candice and Brandon must solve... Their adventure is also a quest for dignity and justice and a journey to understand each other. In a novel marked by scenes of pain and rage, their friendship, genuine and sustaining, is a great achievement. — The New York Times Book Review

* A candid and powerful reckoning of history. — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

* Johnson's Westing Game-inspired tale is a tangled historical mystery, a satisfying multigenerational family story, and an exploration of twentieth-century (and contemporary) race and racism. — The Horn Book, starred review

* Part historical fiction, part critical problem-solving exercise, part suspenseful mystery, this story weaves through the past and present of one town's struggle with hatred and racism. — School Library Journal, starred review

* Johnson takes his readers on a whirlwind expedition with two exceptionally bright kids as they connect the dots of this mystery and gain insights into their own families' secrets. The author flashes back to earlier eras to fill out the backstory of the town and the treasure, creating a vivid portrait of the cultural and demographic changes in a South Carolina town, and he creates a narrative that's both a compelling mystery and a powerful commentary on identity, passing, and sacrifice. Fans of The Westing Game, which gets several textual shoutouts, and other puzzling mysteries such as Balliett's Chasing Vermeer will appreciate the twists and turns of this meaningful tale. — The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

A clever puzzle, a hidden treasure, and a couple of kids you'll wish were your friends... Dive in! — Sara Pennypacker, author of Pax

Varian Johnson delivers once again with this rewarding mix of relevant history and challenging mystery! — Kirby Larson, Newbery Honor-winning author of Hattie Big Sky

With a nod to The Westing Game, Varian Johnson has penned a smart mystery that deftly explores the history of racial segregation in the South, modern-day discrimination, friendship, love and bullying... beautifully written, this complex story will captivate an adult audience as well. — BookPage

Realistic and complex. — School Library Connection

A dazzling and emotional read that deals with serious topics such as bullying, racism, and divorce. — Booklist

A gripping mystery. — Publishers Weekly

The Parker Inheritance is a clever puzzle wrapped in an urgent and compassionate novel that will capture readers from the first chapter. — Shelf Awareness

Varian Johnson
Varian Johnson is the author of several children's books. He lives outside of Austin, TX with his family. This is his first time writing for Who HQ.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Scholastic Press
Publication date
October 20, 2021
BISAC categories
JUV039060 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Friendship
JUV011010 - Juvenile Fiction | People & Places | United States - African-American
JUV013000 - Juvenile Fiction | Family | General
JUV039010 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Physical & Emotional Abuse
JUV032040 - Juvenile Fiction | Sports & Recreation | Games - General
Library of Congress categories
ALSC Notable Children's Book
Selection 2022

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