Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Books and Authors
The middle-grade author of The Parker Inheritance (2018) discusses his process, his inspirations, and how his engineering background helps him pull off the heists in his books.
Varian Johnson has written nine books, including The Parker Inheritance (2018), which was named a 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, and a Spring 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List title. Born in Florence, South Carolina, he attended the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a BS in Civil Engineering. He later received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He wrote his first book, A Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid (2005), while still in college. Varian gained even more attention with his first middle-grade novel, The Great Greene Heist (2014), and then tried his hand at historical fiction in The Parker Inheritance. In this book, Candice Miller, a word-loving African American 12-year-old, is spending the summer in South Carolina. Along with her new friend Brandon, Candice is determined to find the treasure alluded to in a letter from her deceased grandmother, who was fired from her job as city manager.LINKS: Growing up, were you a word nerd like Brandon and Candice? What were you like as a child or student?JOHNSON: I was a book devourer as a kid! I remember reading all types of books—from serious realistic fiction to humor to fantasy, and even romance. I also loved writing and would fill notebook after notebook with my G.I. Joe fan fiction.LINKS: Did you pull off any heists on classmates, teachers, or parents? Can you let us in on one or two?JOHNSON: No heists for me—I was a total scaredy-cat. The closest that I came to trying to trick a teacher was pretending to be my twin brother, but I didn’t make it two seconds before bursting into a fit of giggles.LINKS: Describe the books or words that impacted you as a child. Did you visit the library, too? Who instilled a love for literacy, reading, or words? Are you passing on that love to the next generation in your family? How would you respond to naysayers who claim that reading is dead or that books have no lasting impact on those who read them?JOHNSON: I always loved reading, but it wasn’t until I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books and Judy Blume’s Fudge books that I realized I wanted to be a writer as well. Even then, it wasn’t until I found Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton that I realized that I could be a writer. I needed to see that someone who looked like me had already done it.I try to pass my love for reading to others as well. I often tell my daughters that I don’t care what they read, as long as they read. My oldest is a huge fan of graphic novels, which I think is wonderful. Literature is literature, no matter what form it takes. And the more we read, the more we understand about ourselves and the world.LINKS: How and why did you come up with the idea of math puzzles or riddles for The Parker Inheritance? JOHNSON: I have always been a fan of The Westing Game, so when I first began thinking about writing my own puzzle book, I leaned heavily on my engineering background to develop a puzzle focused on math. (I worked as a structural engineer for 16 years.) I came up with what I felt was a satisfactory puzzle, but I didn’t have a story to go with it! It wasn’t until later, when I remembered a story concept about a multigenerational family, that I realized the two ideas could work together.LINKS: How did you keep up with all the twists and turns in a book like this?JOHNSON: I’m a big-time outliner. I usually begin my brainstorming in a notebook but quickly switch over to computer when I have a solid concept. For The Parker Inheritance, I developed pages and pages of documents where I kept track of each time line. I also had a document to track when and where all the clues were placed.LINKS: How did you go about organizing The Parker Inheritance, which jumps between the present day and a historical period? What sort of research did you need to do?JOHNSON: Originally, the book was only going to be told in the present from Candice’s point of view. It wasn’t until I got to chapter seven or so that I realized that this wouldn’t work. There would be too much info dumping in order to give the reader all the necessary information. Plus, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with these characters from the past. Who was Siobhan Washington? What made Enoch Washington into the man he became? I eventually threw that manuscript out and started again, this time using third-person so I could go back and forth between the two time lines.|My editor at the time, Cheryl Klein, really encouraged me to “go big” with this novel. I initially sold her on the idea of a story with a puzzle mystery, but it turned out that she was just as interested as I was in fleshing out the story and seeing all of these great characters through time. I did a lot of research, including going back to my hometown to interview elders who had lived during the 1950s. I wanted the feel of that time line to be as accurate as possible.LINKS: We also really enjoyed To Catch a Cheat and The Great Greene Heist. There’s something fresh and different about the books and your writing style. What is a hallmark of a Varian Johnson book?JOHNSON: Oh, that’s a hard question. I feel like each book is different, though I’ve noticed that I’m very, very interested in parent-child—specifically father-daughter—relationships. Just about each of my works explores this in one way or another.LINKS: What advice do you have for future writers?JOHNSON: Read, read, read as much as you can. Then write, write, write as much as you can. But don’t worry too much about the editing. Not yet. For now—just write, and experiment, and don’t be afraid to write big and dream big.LINKS: Your fans would love to know what you’re working on now. Please tell us about it.JOHNSON: I recently completed the script for a graphic novel about twin girls beginning middle school. Cartoonist Shannon Wright is working on the artwork—I think people will be blown away when they see it. The tentative title is Twins, and it’ll be out in a couple of years. I’m also working on a new middle-grade novel about a boy who loves to play cards. I’m hoping that it will be out in a couple of years as well . . . but maybe I should finish that initial draft first.Sampling JohnsonThe Great Greene Heist. 2014. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99 (9780545525527). Gr. 5–8. My Life as a Rhombus. 2008. Flux, $9.95 (9780738711607). Gr. 10–12.The Parker Inheritance. 2018. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99 (9780545946179). Gr. 5–7.Saving Maddie. 2010. Delacorte, $16.99 (9780385738040). Gr. 10–12. To Catch a Cheat. 2016. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99 (9780545722391). Gr. 5–8.
Puzzles and Heists
Extend kids’ reading—and give their brains a workout—with more mind-bending middle-grade novels that feature puzzle-solving, clue-cracking, investigating tweens. The Ambrose Deception. By Emily Ecton. 2018. Disney/Hyperion, $16.99 (9781484788387). Gr. 5–8.Three seemingly unremarkable kids are chosen to compete for a $10,000 scholarship. They’re each given a different set of clues, with the answers to be found throughout Chicago. A rollicking adventure, a Westing Game–style mystery, and a heartwarming reminder that anyone can be greater than the sum of their parts.Loot. By Jude Watson. 2014. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780545468022). Gr. 4–7. When master jewel thief Alfie McQuinn dies, his stashed set of clues and cryptic last words mark the beginning of a race against time. Four tweens from a group home find themselves busting into a series of high-stakes heists to reclaim seven cursed moonstone gems, with the goal of claiming a reward and making themselves a real home. Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race. By Chris Grabenstein. 2017. Random, $16.99 (9780553536065). Gr. 4–7. Legendary game maker and library supporter Mr. Lemoncello is back with a new game designed to make research fun: Fact-Finding Frenzy. If Kyle and his friends are first to unravel the clues and puzzles about famous historical figures, they’ll win fabulous prizes. But while researching their way to a win, Kyle and his teammate discover some “facts” that could put Mr. Lemoncello’s reputation, his entire game empire, and the library at risk. Mystery in the Mansion. By Lauren Magaziner. 2018. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $16.99 (9780062676276). Gr. 5–8. Carlos doesn’t know how to solve mysteries, but he’ll do anything to help save his mom’s detective agency. In an interactive choose-your-own-adventure, readers can help Carlos interview suspects, find clues, close the case, and save Carlos’ mom’s career. The various options mean the story takes on a new flavor with every reading, and the puzzles are based in learning, so readers work to solve each clue before moving on to the next. Secret Coders. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by Mike Holmes. 2015. First Second, $9.99 (9781626720756). Gr. 3–6. After they discover all kinds of coding-based tricks (robot birds that respond to binary, tricky lock combinations) around school, Eni and Hopper find themselves not only playing around with programming but also nvestigating a mystery. Holmes’ blocky cartoon illustrations clearly depict basic programming concepts with tidy visual cues; even programming newbies will catch on.The Sweetest Heist in History. By Octavia Spencer. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781442476844). Gr. 5–7. Twelve-year-old Randi and her friends D. C. and Pudge love solving crimes as the Ninja Detectives. The Brooklyn Museum is opening an exhibit of Fabergé eggs, and Randi and her friends suspect some Russians in her aunt’s apartment building of planning to steal the eggs. Spencer has created a clever mystery filled with historical references and a satisfying emotional resolution. York: The Shadow Cipher. By Laura Ruby. 2017. HarperCollins/Walden Pond, $17.99 (9780062306937). Gr. 4–7. Tess and Theo’s apartment building has been purchased by a mercenary developer, but Tess believes their home can be saved if they solve the Cipher: a notorious, citywide puzzle leading to fantastic treasure. This imaginative, alternate New York teems with compelling secrets and clues hidden in buildings’ architecture.
Barbara A. Ward teaches literacy and children’s literature courses at Washington State University, in Pullman, WA. Terrell A. Young teaches children’s literature courses at Brigham Young University, UT. Deanna Day teaches literacy and technology courses at Washington State University, Vancouver.
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe