Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson

Oh my heart. This was one of the sweetest, most tender, yet still emotionally honest and unflinching middle grade novels I’ve yet had the privilege of reading. Little wonder that Varian Johnson has won so many awards with prose and plotting like this!

Our hero is ten year-old Anthony “Ant” Joplin, who plans to team up with his best friend Jamal to win the local annual spades tournament, in the kids division at least. Joplin men have traditionally dominated at spades, which makes his first-round exit last year especially humiliating. Ant plans on spending the lead up to this year’s tournament getting in as many practice rounds as he can, and is confident of performing much better this year than last.

But when Jamal is barred from playing in the tournament after getting into a fight at school, Ant has to come up with a new partner fast. With his beloved older brother Aaron away at boarding school, and his other guy friends either not very good or unavailable for that date, it looks like the only option he has left is Shirley, the new girl, whose skill at the game impresses even him. At first, he’s reluctant to admit to anyone that his new partner is a girl. But trouble at home could render any concerns about cooties moot, as Ant discovers that spades aren’t the only legacy Joplin men have held onto.

I genuinely cannot remember ever reading anything that described and rebuked the insidiousness of toxic masculinity while still managing to be as cute and humorous as this. Ant is the sweetest kid, and his burgeoning friendship with Shirley, as well as the way her home life opens his eyes to different ways of being, was just so wonderfully depicted. The game of spades, ofc, plays a central role in all this, bringing me back to my own heyday playing, much like Shirley, as anchorwoman for “Team Doreen and Some Guy”, snagging whichever random partner I could find to play against a pair of dedicated spades players (who, like the younger Ant and Jamal, were shockingly bad at cheating — not that that ever stopped them from trying!)

But you don’t have to be familiar with spades to enjoy this terrific novel, that I’m planning to foist on my own fifth-grader as soon as I can. Mr Johnson does an excellent job of describing the game and its culture for readers who might be unfamiliar with it, or who might need a refresher (such as myself — my heyday was quite a while back.) More importantly, Playing The Cards You’re Dealt tackles complicated issues faced by contemporary kids and navigates them with both sensitivity and aplomb. It’s a terrific read for anyone who can manage a novel, and is definitely on my list of best books I’ve read so far this year.

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson was published October 5 2021 by Scholastic Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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