In Varian Johnson’s Playing the Cards You’re Dealt (Scholastic), 10-year-old Anthony has his mind set on fulfilling his father’s expectations and winning the neighborhood spades tournament. But along the way, Anthony finds himself with conflicting ideas of masculinity and what it means to embody true strength. The Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author spoke to PW about writing nuanced child and adult characters, as well as his lifelong enthusiasm for spades, a game that he believes is all about finding a partner you can trust.
Can you talk about how the book addresses themes of toxic masculinity?
When I first began writing Playing the Cards You’re Dealt, I was really interested in the intersection of toxic masculinity and the question of “what it means to be a man.” Anthony “Ant” Joplin is struggling with carrying on the “Joplin man” tradition of winning at spades. Ant loves his father, but in preparing for the tournament, Ant starts to realize that his dad often makes comments that are belittling to his mom, or even Ant. Then Ant starts to notice this in his best friend. During revision, I realized that I also wanted to explore how repressing emotion and not asking for help can contribute to toxic masculinity and substance abuse.
What role does the game of spades play in Anthony’s life and within the book as a whole?
I grew up playing spades. The vernacular and the sense of community were all big parts of my life. Spades is also best played with a partner, and as I wrote the book, I was amazing by how this facet of the game related to Ant’s life away from the card table. So much of the book is about finding a partner you can trust—a partner who always has your back—and the horrible things that can happen when you stop trusting your partner and asking for help.
What does Anthony ultimately learn about himself throughout the course of the novel?
I think the biggest thing that Anthony learns is that there’s nothing wrong or “weak” with asking for help or showing emotion. I also think that Anthony learns that even good people make mistakes.
While I think it’s important to empathize with people, you should never prioritize someone else’s situation over your own mental or physical health. I think Ant must realize that friendships sometimes change—that there are some things outside of our control—and we sometimes have to love people from afar.
Was it difficult to write about Anthony’s complicated relationship with his father?
The scenes between Ant and his father were definitely the hardest to write. A key part of each scene was trying to think about Roland Joplin’s actions through his own eyes. In his mind, Roland isn’t the villain of the story—he believes that he’s doing to right thing for himself and his family.
I also wanted Ant to struggle with coming to terms with who his father is. Ant has looked up to his father for so long…it would only be natural for Ant to become emotional and troubled when his father’s perfect veneer began to crack.
Is it more challenging to write from the perspective of a child over that of an adult? How much do you find yourself revisiting moments and feelings from your own childhood as you write?
Creating authentic characters—whether they’re an adult or a child—is all about thinking about what a character wants, why they want it, and how they fail or succeed at getting that thing. Again, I don’t think most characters see themselves as villains—they’re all just flawed humans, like the rest of us. Capturing the nuances in each character is the key to transforming a cast from flat to multi-dimensional.
For every book, I tend to mine my own backstory for lived experiences that might relate to a story or help make a book feel more “real.” Whether that experience actually makes it into the book or not isn’t important—it’s more about if I can recreate the feeling of that experience in the new book. My goal is to take the emotional truths of my own life and to weave that feeling into the fictional truths of my characters in the book.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I suppose that I hope readers find parts that make them laugh, and parts that perhaps make them cry. I hope they see something that makes them think about the world we live in, and the little ways we can make it better by being kinder to our fellow humans. Oh—and I wouldn’t mind if it caused more people to learn how to play spades!