Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wednesday, February 28, 2018: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Parker Inheritance

Arthur A. Levine Books: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance

by Varian Johnson

When 12-year-old Candice Miller moves to her late grandmother's house in Lambert, S.C., the only mystery she has to solve is how she'll survive a long summer away from her friends and her father back in Atlanta. Then, while digging around in the attic, she finds a note written in her grandmother's familiar handwriting: "Find the path. Solve the puzzle." The discovery, which seems intended for Candice, immerses her in a mystery dating back to the 1950s--a mystery that might end with a multimillion-dollar reward.

Ten years earlier, Candice's grandmother Abigail Caldwell, "the first woman, and the first African-American, to serve as city manager for Lambert," tried to solve the same mystery. But Abigail's determination to unravel the conundrum that Candice now faces caused her to take extreme measures (such as using a backhoe to dig up a public tennis court). Because of these actions, she became "the laughingstock of the city." Now, Candice is intent upon using the same clues to solve the mystery and clear her grandmother's name. To do so, she will have to stay quiet about her plans, and share her quest only with her neighbor and new quasi-friend, 11-year-old Brandon.

The mystery begins with Enoch "Big Dub" Washington and his daughter Siobhan, who lived in Lambert in 1956 and 1957, after segregation was declared illegal, but before integration was enforced. With direct nods to The Westing Game, the book's contemporary puzzle is set against the backdrop of the ugly racism and violence of the Jim Crow South, and must be solved by Candice and Brandon's research into long-buried incidents in Lambert's history. The reader meets the Washingtons early in the novel and learns more about their lives every few chapters. Candice and Brandon, however, uncover just a few details at a time about the Washingtons. Additionally, Johnson presents the reader with information from several different points of view, including Siobhan's independent voice. In this way, readers often learn new information before Candice does, and are given enough background to have a fair shot at solving the puzzle themselves, even though the clues present a real challenge. Teachers and librarians will be particularly gratified to see Candice and Brandon using robust information literacy strategies to solve the puzzle ("He ran another search, this time with Luling and baseball").

Throughout the complex story, author Varian Johnson respects the intelligence of his middle-grade readers by writing truthfully and accessibly about the cruelty and violence Siobhan and her family faced. In particular, he takes great care with the details he includes (and skips) in order to keep the content appropriate for his audience. For example, after a dispute at a tennis game, a white doll that's been painted black is found on Siobhan's father's car: "The baby was naked, with horrible words scratched into its plastic skin. A noose hung around the baby's neck." "Horrible words" are mentioned at several points in Johnson's story, and readers don't need to know the actual slurs to understand that they are offensive and scary. A few brief scenes of violence are frightening, but they are, sadly, necessary to the story, and written with great poise.

Johnson also brings contemporary concerns to the page, in incidents that have Candice and Brandon confronting bullying and prejudice against gay men. And, where appropriate, as with all timeless middle grade fiction, there are ample grace notes, as when Brandon says to Candice, "'We're partners, remember? I've always got your back.'" With moments like this, Johnson builds strong emotional resonance worthy of the subject matter without excluding younger readers. Additionally, he seems aware that The Parker Inheritance will be the first place many young readers learn about concepts like "passing" or historical events like the Brown v. Board of Education case, and he seamlessly sews these facts into the fabric of the contemporary story by having Candice or Brandon learn along with the reader. His thoughtful writing is complemented by back matter that discusses the real-world events that inspired many of the characters and parts of his story. As with the fictional story preceding, Johnson's writing is skillful and direct, answering questions like "Was life really so bad for black people that they would want to pretend to be white?" He includes an honest discussion of the thousands of black Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950 but also allows his own hope to shine through: "We have a long way to go, but I believe we'll get there."

At every opportunity, The Parker Inheritance encourages young readers to be honest and broadminded; Johnson offers them a sturdy moral compass and empowers them to use it. We need to acknowledge when people and their actions are wrong, he seems to say, even when it's uncomfortable to do so. And Candice and Brandon are characters to cheer for, with their fierce determination and dedication to getting to the bottom of this mystery. Their curiosity and open-mindedness drive their quest and endear them to the reader. What Candice and Brandon ultimately discover is that, whether or not millions are on the line, no mystery can be solved by covering over mistakes and pretending they never happened. The Parker Inheritance is a clever puzzle wrapped in an urgent and compassionate novel that will capture readers from the first chapter. --Stephanie Anderson

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 8-12, 9780545946179

Arthur A. Levine Books: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson: The Facts Behind the Fiction

photo: Kenneth B. Gall

Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including the Jackson Greene adventures The Great Greene Heist and To Catch a Cheat. His newest work for young readers, The Parker Inheritance (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), comes out on March 27. He lives with his family near Austin, Tex.

The plot of The Parker Inheritance is driven by the discovery of a letter. In the era of text messages and Snapchat, why did you choose a letter as the catalyst for your story?

I have always treasured sending and receiving letters through the mail--there's something about the tactile nature of the paper that creates a more intimate, emotional feeling. I wanted Candice and Brandon to have a similar emotional connection. The letter has character and, in some ways, IS a character. I wanted readers to see the letter in the past--for them to have that experience with Abigail of handling something so new and fresh--and to then juxtapose that with Candice's discovery of the same letter, now old and faded and hidden away. 

Candice and Brandon are both avid readers, and you mention many beloved classics throughout the story. Were you an avid reader at their ages? How did you decide which books to mention in your story?

I have always loved reading. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include The Westing Game in the story, because it served as the initial inspiration for the book (and, later, a plot point). Many other children's classics, including Holes and When You Reach Me, popped up in the book during the drafting and revision process, but most were cut as they didn't serve enough purpose in the story. (But they're still great books!)

There's a tricky puzzle woven into the pages of The Parker Inheritance. How did you develop it?

I had the bones of the puzzle already worked out when I first began writing the novel, but the puzzle changed a lot as I completed the story. I found that the puzzle and the story influenced each other--often a new wrinkle in the story caused me to revise a clue, and vice versa. It was a very complicated process to find the balance between addressing the mysteries of the letter via flashback while maintaining the main narrative's forward momentum.

Your book does a marvelous job of explaining specific instances of racial injustice in the United States to middle grade readers. How did you negotiate writing honestly about the violence and inequality black Americans have faced, while still keeping the content accessible for eight- to 12-year-olds?

I decided early on that I was not going to sugarcoat the system of violence and injustice perpetrated toward blacks during the 1950s. I also knew that there were some scenes I could not show on the page. I tried to strike a balance with showing as much as possible, and then cutting away and hinting at certain things, leaving it to the readers' imagination to fill in the clues. Sadly, I think today's youth have seen more than enough in their brief lifetimes to adequately fill in those blanks.

Although this book is fiction, many of the situations in the story are based on things that really happened. What sort of research did you do to write this book? Where can young readers learn more about the real-life events that inspired your book?

I spent a lot of time in libraries, researching the real incidents and people that inspired the book. I also interviewed some of the elders from my hometown of Florence, S.C., to try to better understand life as a black teen in the 1950s. The author's note goes into more of the research that I did for the book, and provides a good jumping-off point for readers interested in the facts behind the fiction.

Librarians everywhere will rejoice when they read along with the real-life search strategies Candice and Brandon use to try to solve the puzzle. Do these details echo your own searches?

Candice and Brandon's strategies totally mimic the real-life sleuthing I did to create and "solve" the puzzle. I ran each of the web searches that they performed in order to see what popped up--to make sure that the answer to a clue wasn't revealed too quickly. I also spent a lot of time reading old newspapers from 1957 so I could confirm exactly what was printed about Althea Gibson and her historic win at Wimbledon. I even looked through old yearbooks from predominately black high schools to see how they were organized. In many ways, it was easy to write about the techniques that Candice and Brandon used for deciphering the letter, as I had performed that very same research to write the book. 

The fictional town of Lambert, S.C., has many ugly, racist secrets in its not-so-distant past. Do you hope your book will inspire young readers to unearth and confront the history of their own hometowns?

I believe it's always good for people to reexamine the history of their hometowns and communities. For instance, I think it's great that so many communities are reevaluating the need for Civil War monuments. It's one thing to remember the Civil War through books and museums and it's quite another to honor that history with schools and monuments named after "heroes" of the Confederacy.

After readers devour The Parker Inheritance, what do you recommend they read next?

Of course, The Westing Game is high on my list of what to read next. But other books that I would suggest include The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, Holes, March: Book 3 and When You Reach Me. --Stephanie Anderson


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