Varian Johnson is the author of the Jackson Greene middle grade series, which includes his 2014 caper, The Great Greene Heist, and the 2016 follow-up, To Catch a Cheat. Johnson’s forthcoming novel, The Parker Inheritance, blends history and mystery in a puzzle adventure set in the fictional town of Lambert, S.C.—inspired in part by the author’s South Carolina hometown of Florence. When neighbors Candice and Brandon discover a cryptic letter containing clues to a secret fortune, they set out to solve the riddle. Along the way, the children unearth a decades-old hate crime and confront the town’s lingering racial tensions. We spoke with Johnson about the power of perception, the personal roots of his novel, and addressing issues of prejudice for young readers.
Puzzles, involving both words and numbers, play a crucial role in The Parker Inheritance, and the novel pays direct homage to The Westing Game. What is it about Ellen Raskin’s mystery that resonates with you, as a writer and a reader?
I first read The Westing Game when I was a child, and I loved the mystery element. I actually rediscovered the book when I was writing The Great Greene Heist. I really admired how Raskin uses the third person point-of-view and the omniscient narrator to hide information from readers and from the characters—yet all the clues are there. I loved the idea of readers being an active participant in the story, if they’re perceptive enough. My formal training is as a civil engineer, and I’ve always loved math and science. So for The Parker Inheritance, I thought [the puzzle] would be a nice way to work that into the story as well.
In the novel, solving James Parker’s riddle offers not only a financial reward, but the chance to right a past injustice—which readers learn about through the kids’ investigation and flashbacks. Why did you decide to alternate the narration between time periods?
I wasn’t going to at first. I started writing in the first-person perspective, all in the present day. But I realized about a third of the way through that I couldn’t do the story justice without seeing what happened in the past. So I backed up a bit, and then backed up even farther. I wanted to showcase the Washington family and how they interact with James Parker. And I wanted to show how he became James Parker.
This became a good opportunity to juxtapose race relations and issues in the past with how those issues manifest themselves in the present—how they’re similar and different. It was a good vehicle to explore how we’re tied to preconceived notions of the past: the idea that someone is lesser just because of the way they look, or who they are. Those ideas still manifest themselves. We’ve come a long way, but we have a really long way to go to become a society that is not racist or misogynistic or homophobic.
In a blog post that you wrote for the Nerdy Book Club when the book cover was revealed, you shared a story from your teen years, when you and your brother were racially profiled at the airport. Can you talk about how that experience inspired some of the themes in The Parker Inheritance?
I thought about that story for a long time. At first, I was going to the airport to pick [my brother] up. I was jealous because he’d been selected for a leadership academy in Florida, and I was stuck at home. So when he arrived, we did a lukewarm bro hug. We go to the car and that’s when the police officer came up to us and said he suspected us of being drug smugglers, and that he needed to search the car. I remember thinking, “I should say ‘no.’ We’re not doing anything wrong.” Then I thought that it would be easier not to cause any trouble—that maybe I was doing something wrong, maybe I should have looked a different way.
My brother and I didn’t tell our parents about it. Just recently I told my mother. I remember feeling at the time like I was somehow to blame for this thing, which was not the case. It goes back to the idea of the preconceived notion, the perception the officer had that the only reason two African-American boys would be at the airport was because they were drug smuggling. Never mind what my brother had just come from, this leadership conference.
I wanted Candice to have something similar happen to her, where she and Brandon are blamed for something they didn’t do. Candice questions what happens, but her mom says she didn’t do anything wrong. It’s important for young people to hear that. Often young people just end up blaming themselves, when it’s older people’s negative, racist ideas that put them in the situation.
Sports are also integral to the history of Lambert, and in some ways offer the key to unlocking the Parker inheritance. How did the idea for the pivotal tennis match emerge?
I’ve always been interested in sports, and I wanted a way to explore that. I didn’t want to cover more traditional sports like football or basketball, which are known for having so many great African-American players. In some ways, tennis feels like such an elitist sport that has historically been dominated by white people and shunned African-Americans. But there have been people of color—including Althea Gibson, who won Wimbledon in 1957, and now the Williams sisters—who have excelled at tennis.
I thought it would be really great to have a character, Enoch Washington, who was good at all sports, but who chooses tennis because of the way it makes him feel, to insert himself in a sport that doesn’t typically include people who look like him.
All of those ideas were swirling around in my head; it seemed like a nice juxtaposition, and a way to explore race relations through that vein. The tennis elements also worked well with the wordplay at the heart of the mystery.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 Mar. 27 ISBN 978-0-545-94617-9