‘Playing the Cards You’re Dealt’ by Varian Johnson is a wonderful middle grade read about life, family, and dealing with challenges

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt
by Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson has written some fabulous books for middle grade readers. My students loved “The Parker Inheritance,” and my first experience with his writing was reviewing “The Great Greene Heist,” both novels sparkling examples of witty middle grade reads. With “Playing the Cards You’re Dealt,” Johnson gives readers a glimpse into the world of those who plays spades, and in the Joplin family, playing spades is as close to a religious experience as they are going to have outside of church. Ten-year-old Ant, short for Anthony, had embarrassed himself at the annual spade tournament the previous year, and he’s determined that he and his best friend and spade-playing partner, Jamal, will win this year.

For Ant, it’s as much to see the look of pride on his father’s face as it is to win. He saw how proud his father was when Ant’s older brother, Aaron, won the tournament, and Ant is determined to show that he has the stuff as well. But things don’t go according to plan when Ant notices something off about his father’s behavior, and it turns out that his father has succumbed to his dual addictions: gambling and alcohol. That’s tough enough, but Ant is also dealing with his feelings for a new girl in his class and the fallout from problems Jamal is facing at home.

Will Ant be able to win the spades tournament and gain his father’s respect? Will his father be able to overcome his weaknesses? What is the price of friendship, and what makes a true friend? And an important question that runs through the story is: Who is narrating this story? Johnson gives us clues throughout the story — the narrator’s reference to himself as an “OG,” which I took to mean “old guy;” a car horn that goes off unexpectedly, “Kinda like it was touched by an anger, or a ghost”; a cup that falls into the sink and causes Ant to push the send button on a text he was debating sending; and finally, “way, way up in that grandstand in that grandstand in the sky, my heart shattered right along with youngblood’s, piece by jagged piece.” We know that it’s someone, because the narrator talks as if he knows Ant personally, unlike a typical third person narrative, and occasionally the narrator refers to himself as “I” or refers to Ant as “my man,” so we realize it’s a first person narrative and someone who knows Ant. Johnson cleverly creates this narrative so that we feel, like the narrator, at once closer to Ant. Almost as if we were related to him.

This would be a wonderful choice for a class reading selection or a read aloud since there is much that a capable teacher could do in terms of asking larger life questions. There are themes that deal with friendship, family, jealousy, pride, and respect. One memorable moment in the book is when Jamal’s brother tries to bother Aaron, trash talking and making fun of the fact he plays the flute, saying, “I bet that’s how the boys—oh, I mean the girls—like it.” Aaron explains to Ant that kind of talk doesn’t bother him. “Why do I care if boys are interested in me? What does that have to do with me? Who I’m interested in?” He then goes on to say that only idiots think it’s weak to be gay. And Johnson explores the meaning of the word “weak.” Is it weak to be kind? Thoughtful?

It’s also worth noting that Johnson chooses not to wrap up the story with a neat bow. We don’t know how it all ends, and a good teacher will compare the ending of the book to life. We don’t know how things end up in life; we just have to keep playing the game to see what cards fate deals us. This is definitely a book that should be in every school library and on classroom bookshelves.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Scholastic, for review purposes.