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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE PARKER INHERITANCE by Varian Johnson

parkerinheritanceWith perfectly timed clues and just the right amount of mystery, the puzzle Johnson has created takes the reader all over Lambert, back in time, and into the stories of many who thought their truth had been forgotten. Candice is searching for answers to prove her grandmother wasn’t the crazy person many think she was, but she’s also encountering an enhanced education on what the end of segregation meant for her family and the people of Lambert. Johnson’s ability to balance intense subjects such as divorce, moving to a new town, and Jim Crow era race relations, as well as present-day racial tensions without leaving an overarching sadness is wonderful. The presentation of such topics was accomplished in a manner fit for a middle grade audience, while still evoking lightness in the overall tone. The conversation between Candice and her mother that takes place in the entirety of chapter 24 (pages 138-142) is an excellent example of this.

The character development and the subsequent relationships formed, whether positive or negative, is what initially drew me into the story and those attributes continued to keep hold on me throughout the book. Siobhan and Reggie’s relationship packed an emotional punch, while the connection between Candice and Brandon had a childlike sweetness. Their development from being forced together by their mothers into true friends was beautifully done. Brandon and Milo had a volatile relationship, yet it felt realistic and appropriately placed. Johnson has truly created characters that kids can see themselves in, while still placing them in a puzzle-solving treasure hunt.

The Author’s Note gives excellent context as to why Johnson chose to write this story and what he based it on. I especially liked his response to the final question: “Was life really so bad for black people that they would want to pretend to be white?” The story alone opens up a wealth of discussion-worthy topics for families and classrooms, but this question and answer give readers something to truly think deeply about.

The historical elements, paired with an enticing mystery and well-drawn characters made for a rich reading experience. I loved my time with this book and walked away having both absorbed new information regarding this country’s history with race relations and thoroughly enjoyed a fun puzzle-solving group of kids.

Introduction by Amanda

Readers are now invited to share positive input on THE PARKER INHERITANCE in the comments section below. Later today we’ll open the discussion up to all comments, positive, negative, and everything in between.

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    I thought this book did a good job of portraying the realities of racial tension in a way that didn’t sugar-coat history but also was not overwhelming to readers. The violence was harsh and the injuries made me cringe, but I think the author didn’t stray into being too gory or manipulating for shock value.

    The choice of tennis as the sport at the center of the mystery was a surprise and an interesting reminder that athletes of color do not only play basketball, despite what our library collections might suggest.

    • Mary, I agree with you on both points.

      I think the historical flashbacks in this novel were super-effective at showing the ugliness of prejudice and racism, and they provided a sturdy foundation for what happened in the novel’s present time sequences. I particularly love how the relationship between Reggie and Siobhan was built up. It felt organic, realistic, and… I’ll say it… romantic. My little heart was all aflutter.

      And the devastation of how their relationship is forced apart made everything leading up to it even more powerful.

      • I too, liked the structure of how the prejudice in the flashbacks mirrored Brandon’s situation in the present.

  2. Courtney Hague says:

    I agree with all of this. I think the historical parts are very well done. I loved that tennis was the chosen sport. I think that Amanda does a great job of highlighting the interconnectedness of the character development with the relationships that are built between the characters.

    I also just really loved the way this mystery was plotted. I think the careful choices made by the author would reward a re-read that would show how you really could solve the mystery all from the letter once you had the full context of the story.

    • Deborah Ford says:

      This is me, nodding my head. Tennis: surprise. Plenty of tension. Love the primary sources they used in their research. Certainly, the pretending to be white has not (to my memory) been portrayed in children’s lit.

  3. I like that the theme “We see what we want to see” carries through lots of situations in the book where people’s judgment is clouded or they’re making assumptions: Candice and Brandon don’t notice Reggie in the tennis photo at first because they think they are looking for a white guy and don’t look for him on a team of black tennis players, Reggie to passes for white later, Brandon’s family assumes that Candice and her mom need financial help, Candice doesn’t realize her dad is gay.
    I found the LGBT issues to be handled very deftly. Being that Candice’s dad is religious and conservative about many things, it makes sense that he wasn’t able to come out of the closet earlier in his life. The anti-LGBT bullying is realistic too- Brandon is targeted because his friend, Quincy came out. I also like that whether Brandon is gay or not is not confirmed, and in fact, Candice knows it does not matter–AND is a super ally–defending him to his grandpa. “He. Is. Perfect.” p312 (cue waterworks for this reader!)
    I’m pretty sure this is the first middle grade novel that discusses racism (past and present/ severe and obviousness varieties) passing and anti-LGBT oppression in one book. Looking at how assumptions/prejudices obscure things and the way people (Reggie, Candice’s dad) find their true selves– made this so much more than a just a great historical fiction mystery.

    • (sorry…’ Black’ should be capitalized above!)
      and I meant to say “obliviousness” the variety of racism when someone who thinks they are well meaning, does something racist (the coach’s son sending Reggie the shoeshine “boy” for cokes)

    • I appreciated that the concept of “passing” was also explained in detail. That could have easily gone over the heads of many readers as an isolated incident where one man was able to, in a sense, trick people. But instead, we got to hear some history of what passing is and the reasons behind why someone would do it or feel pressured to do so.

    • I actually took great exception to the LGBTQ angle in this book. Those issues felt shoe-horned into a narrative that was already tackling a lot of Big Issues; they took a backseat because they *had* to. And I was actually *furious* when Candace’s dad being gay was revealed. For one thing, Johnson used a trope that irks me greatly: a main character overhearing the conversation of another character, and, in this case, assuming a gender (mishearing Danielle instead of Daniel, is *insane* because neither of those names sound particularly like the other). There didn’t seem to be any intentionality in that character being developed – her dad being gay felt like a flimsy excuse to discuss sexual identity. It didn’t feel authentic or sincere at all to me.

      I would have much preferred a more nuanced development of Brandon’s character – like if he is gay (and we don’t really know if he is) then address that. Don’t produce a plot point for the sole sake of constructing a parallel that adds very little to the story.

      • Also, I want to be clear: Susan, I speak as *one* gay person. I don’t represent my community *at all* when I speak my opinion about All Things Gay – I just speak for me and my interpretation. 🙂

        I also do not want to take away from *your* opinion. I am so glad that you found value in the LGBTQ angle, and I’m equally pleased that you felt the parallel was well-constructed. If a book like the Parker Inheritance can achieve that for a reader (even if that reader is not me), then I believe there is merit in that book.

      • I absolutely agree with this. Adding in another “issue” was unnecessary and frustrated me. It was not a well-developed part of the narrative and therefore not at all necessary. I really enjoyed this book, but that portion of the plot was a huge problem.

      • Joe, I’m really happy to have your opinion. I wholeheartedly agree that the name Daniel would never be mistaken as “Danielle”– unless it was a French construction guy (!) and in the audio book the narrator did not pronounce it that way. Why not use the name Leslie or Aaron/Erin? I would have liked the dad to be more fully developed (beyond the stereotypes of being into dance music, a great cook and fussy about clothes!)

        Perhaps I am too easily overjoyed by of incidental gayness/gay side characters– And the portrayal of straight allies standing up to homophobia! (I stand by loving that whole-heartedly!) Growing up in the 70s and 80s where we only had things like Annie on My Mind (sad issue books) this LGBTQ teen was STARVED for any “family” showing up in a book.
        I feel so heartened that we now have books with queer main characters AND books with side characters– hopefully authors will improve at giving them the ring of truth.

      • I disagree about it being throwing in another “issue”. There are gay people around. They are in peoples lives. They should be in books. I think the presence of the queer characters is are not the problem, the weak development of them is.

      • “I think the presence of the queer characters is are not the problem, the weak development of them is.”

        I 100% agree with you on this, Susan!

        Also, I loved Annie on my Mind. I’m a sucker for sad gay books… but that’s another discussion for another time, right. 😉

      • I love Annie too. AND love having today’s stuff –still waving my Drum Roll, Please flag high!!! Looking forward to more LGBT books to discuss in the future!

      • Yes to all of this, Susan. *commence RuPaul’s Drag Race-levels of finger snapping*

    • sarahbtlibrarian says:

      I agree with the LGBT angle being shoe-horned in. We had our mock discussion today and this book was included. I felt like the author was almost trying to draw some parallels between prejudice in the 50’s and prejudice today, but it never quite got there and instead just fell flat. This part wasn’t developed as well and so the plot point just ended up stalling out. I wish it had been developed more.

      • I felt like the book did a good job of comparing and contrasting examples of historical and present- day racism.

      • Courtney Hague says:

        I’m a little late chiming in on this part of the discussion, but I wanted to say that I agree here. I think that the LGBTQ angle felt a little shoe-horned in especially once the big reveal about her dad happened. I like what he was trying to do but I think that with all the other plot points and themes that he was juggling, this one just, as Sarah put it, stalled out.

  4. Jessica Lee says:

    I was very impressed with the plotting in THE PARKER INHERITANCE. The two separate time periods with events that echoed between them made for a rich story, showing how the past influences the future. It also leaves ample room for readers to see parallels between various prejudices. As a reader, I enjoy the challenge of putting the pieces together – not just the pieces of the puzzle but also the overlapping ideas.

    • I think it’s okay to jump in with concerns now. I actually found the mystery a bit of a mess and a little too reliant on coincidence to be satisfying. As much as I appreciated the back story, there where so many players I struggled to keep them straight. (Possibly because I listened and didn’t see the names in print) By the end I remember feeling that there was a lot going on, but some of the threads got too wonky to follow.
      I don’t have concrete examples because I read it so long ago, but as a mystery lover I felt frustrated and cheated by the way come of the ‘clues’ were resolved.

      • I agree with this. I felt like the mystery was solving itself in the flashbacks for the reader so Brandon and Candice had to make contrived leaps in the present to keep pace. It started to lose me.

      • I have really enjoyed Varian Johnson’s work. I think his characterizations are strong, and this is a wonderful story to highlight. I think the comparison to The Westing Game is apt. But I have to agree that this book was not a home run for me. It was confusing at points and I felt as if I could see the machinery behind the plot working to line everything up. I do think Varian Johnson is an author to watch and I predict we will see amazing things from him in the future.

      • I agree. The mystery components of this novel didn’t work for me at all. The opening sequence of the city manager digging up the park was such a great attention-grab, but it never seemed to develop much past that. I stopped caring about the present-day mystery and just wanted to read them to get to the historical parts.

      • Agree with this not being a home-run book. Also agree we will see amazing things from him. Maybe next time! I found this one slow-moving in parts and really long!

  5. It’s been a number of months since I’ve read this, but what remains is the joy of watching to two kids bike around the town all summer. It felt like the summers of my childhood, even though the book was contemporary. The town felt very much like places I’ve known, in all it’s depicted time periods.

    Also, more summers spent biking around for everyone!

  6. samuel leopold says:

    This is one of the favorite books of my middle school students. More than one of them drew connections to The Westing Game—still one of my all-time favorites.

    I agree that the character development is well done. The theme is another distinguished part of this novel. I cannot add more to what Susan has said so wonderfully. This theme is one that young readers can definitely relate to. They see it being played out in both negative and positive ways in their everyday lives.

    It was refreshing to see Brandon enjoying reading so much. I loved the conversation between him and Candice in chapter four…..Candice says “maybe you won’t like them because the main characters are girls….” ” I love those books!” He sat up taller. “And Aerin is one of my favorite characters.”
    Unfortunately, many parts of our culture still try to paint the illusion that books are for girls and that strong female characters in a novel are not examples of distinguished writing. Fortunately, we have many books like this one chipping away at those decaying statues of misguided beliefs.

    I enjoyed this book and see it as a contender to be reckoned with. But…..I have concerns very similar to Danae’s comments and cannot see this title rising above several other books on our finalist list.

  7. samuel leopold says:

    I meant to say in the first line of the next to last paragraph of my comments…….”Unfortunately, many parts of our culture still paint the illusion that books are only for girls……..”

  8. Jessica Lee says:

    I agree with the many concerns about the mystery in THE PARKER INHERITANCE. I did not enjoy the created puzzle as opposed to a natural mystery. At times it felt too clever and not how a puzzle actually works. There was no way that a reader could solve the mystery along with the characters.

    • “Too clever” is a great way of describing the puzzle. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on what part of it bothered me, but that’s exactly it.

    • I agree, Jessica. Part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to solve it before the protagonists do. The reader is never afforded the opportunity to do so with this book. The “clues” are vague and the stakes are low. I felt very little tension, which is uncommon for a mystery… at least a well-constructed one. I felt similarly about the “mystery” component to MASON BUTTLE. It’s pretty clear who the “bad guy” is, but even though there’s a murder, the stakes felt pretty low.

  9. I agree with DaNae, etc., about the mystery not really working. I liked the idea of it being a created mystery so there’s a reason that it’s still there and that these kids could solve it. Since usually that’s one of those things that doesn’t make that much sense if you think about it too hard in a puzzle book (but it’s also an accepted trope and it doesn’t actually bother me usually–if you’re properly caught up in the solving, you won’t have time to think about the origins too hard!). But it would up being such a complicated back story as to why the puzzle was set up that there’s too much to explain at the end. And I wanted more mystery along the way–there’s very little sleuthing the kids actually do.

    I did like the historical parts and I think it would have been stronger as just historical fiction without the contemporary mystery. I don’t think those parts were middle grade though. All of the characters were adults or teens and the plot lines went with those issues. And I agree with DaNae about having trouble keeping track of all of the characters. There were just a lot of people and we jumped around in time so much that it was a lot to keep track of (which doesn’t seem particularly kid-friendly).

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