cover image Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Varian Johnson. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-338-34853-8

Johnson (Twins) addresses themes of toxic masculinity, family, and legacy in this vividly told novel centering Black 10-year-old card shark Anthony “Ant” Joplin. As he starts the fifth grade in South Carolina, Ant is preparing for the Oak Grove annual spades tournament. The game is a family tradition in the Joplin house, and Ant, whose play was “less than satisfactory” the previous year, wants to live up to his champion brother’s success and make their father proud. Ant practices with the help of his trash-talking best friend, Jamal, and meets new schoolmate Shirley, from Texas, who proves to be just as good at spades as Ant. But as Ant’s father, who holds a limited view of masculinity, begins to spiral into online gambling and alcohol abuse, and Jamal’s teasing becomes hurtful, Ant teams up with Shirley for the game, juggling compassion and disappointment as things grow worse on all sides. Via an omniscient, “mostly hands-off” narrator who dynamically breaks down the “great African American institution called spades,” Johnson deftly and realistically portrays family, friend, and classroom dynamics alongside lively descriptions of the beloved game. Ages 8–12. Agent: Sara Crowe, Pippin Properties. (Oct.)