Posts Tagged historical fiction

Interview and Giveaway with Author Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including The Great Greene Heist, which was an ALA Notable Children’s Book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2014, and a Texas Library Association Lone Star List selection, and To Catch a Cheat, another Jackson Greene adventure and a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. He lives with his family near Austin, Texas. You can find him on the web at and @varianjohnson.

Photo credit: Kenneth B. Gall

Varian’s newest book, The Parker Inheritance (Arthur A. Levine/ Scholastic) will come out next week, and has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, The Horn Book, and Kirkus, and is a Junior Library Guild Spring 2018 Selection.   

About the book:

“When Candice finds a letter in an old attic in Lambert, South Carolina, she isn’t sure she should read it. It’s addressed to her grandmother, who left the town in shame. But the letter describes a young woman. An injustice that happened decades ago. A mystery enfolding the letter-writer. And the fortune that awaits the person who solves the puzzle.

So with the help of Brandon Jones, the quiet boy across the street, she begins to decipher the clues. The challenge will lead them deep into Lambert’s history, full of ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, and one great love; and deeper into their own families, with their own unspoken secrets. Can they find the fortune and fulfill the letter’s promise before the answers slip into the past yet again?”

How does your engineering background inform your writing?

The Parker Inheritance was probably influenced by my engineering career more than any of my other books. There are a lot of math terms in the book, much of which I learned while getting my civil engineering degree. But there’s also a very big difference between designing bridges and writing books. And as much as I liked my engineering job, I’m very happy now be a full-time children’s book author.


The Parker Inheritance pays homage to the classic puzzle novel, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. (The Cooperative Children’s’ Book Center at UW-Madison has many of her notes and drafts archived here.) Can you tell us about your process for constructing the Parker puzzle(s) and deciding how the clues would reveal the answer?

The novel that would eventually become The Parker Inheritance started off as two separate novel ideas, with one being a puzzle mystery and the other being a historical multi-generational novel. I tinkered with both on and off for years, but neither idea was strong enough to stand alone. It wasn’t until rereading Holes that I got the idea to combine the ideas. The puzzle was pretty well developed when I began writing the book—and it was surprising how well the puzzle fit into the larger historical story. Even though I was consciously writing two books, maybe my subconscious always knew that the stories belonged together.

Like your Jackson Greene books, The Parker Inheritance involves complex details for the characters to put together, but in a sort of reverse way. Instead of building the details into a caper like “Gang Greene,” Candice and Brandon are breaking down a mystery by revealing the details. Did that difference influence your approach to the writing?

Oh, totally. Candice and Brandon’s strategies mirror the real-life sleuthing I did to create and “solve” the puzzle. I ran each of the web searches that they performed in order to see what popped up—to make sure that the answer to a clue wasn’t revealed too quickly. In many ways, it was easy to write about the techniques that Candice and Brandon used for deciphering the letter, as I had performed that very same research to write the book.

What made you decide to use flashbacks and multiple points of view to tell part of the story instead of sticking with Candice’s POV?

I thought it was important to see the lives of the people from the puzzle through their own eyes—not just Candice and Brandon’s viewpoints. I also thought it would be interesting to show how race relations have improved from the 1950s to today…and unfortunately to also show how race relations have stayed the same.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from The Parker Inheritance what would it be?

If anything, I want readers to think about the preferences and preconceptions that they bring into any interaction. I want readers to question what they believe when they see someone; when they speak with someone. I want reader to step past their internal biases in order to see the real person standing in front of them.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Parker Inheritance?

The Westing Game, obviously! But also The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, Holes, March Book 3, and When You Reach Me.

And now for the giveaway:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Reading Roundup: Three Middle Grade Standouts

It’s hard to keep up with all the exciting new releases in middle grade fiction that have crossed my desk in the last few months. But there are three from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, I need to crow about. They couldn’t be more different from one another. But each has a plot that will leave young readers breathless and each has characters that will win hearts and minds.

I’ll start with CHECKED by Cynthia Kadota, because although I’m not usually interested in sports books or hockey, I loved it! To the story’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Conor, nothing is more important than playing hockey – and his policeman dad, who was a hockey player himself, supports his son’s dream of playing professionally. But when Conor’s beloved Doberman, Sinbad is diagnosed with cancer, everything begins to change. The dog’s treatment is barely affordable and Conor begins doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to help out with the costs. Soon he begins noticing other people’s problems, like those of his elderly neighbors. Conor is the kind of kid you’d want your kid to be. And his dad is the kind of dad you wish every kid had. The relationship between them is real and totally heart-warming. You can’t help believing in these two. What great role models for young readers!

  The electrifying ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO by N.H. Senzai, takes place at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee the bombing of Aleppo. Her harrowing journey to reunite with them at the Turkish border brings readers deep inside the danger and uncertainty of the escape. Together with Ammo Mazen, a mysterious old man who takes her under his wing, Nadia makes her way through the city where soldiers and rebel gangs threaten their existence. But as Ammo Mazen weakens, Nadia must develop the courage and resourcefulness to help herself and her friend. It’s a hopeful ending, but young readers won’t soon forget this emotionally wrenching exploration of the war in Syria and its awful cost.

  At the beginning of Avi’s book, THE PLAYER KING, a 15th century scullion named Lambert Simnel is working in a rough tavern in Oxford. Lambert has no family he knows of. He isn’t even sure of his age, which he guesses at “nine, ten or even thirteen.” But because of his resemblance to young Prince Edward, the missing heir to England’s throne, Lambert is purchased by two villains, Brother Simonds and the Earl of Lincoln, who forcibly educate him in the ways of royalty. The villains’ purpose is to have Lambert claim Prince Edward’s identity as the true king, opposing King Henry VII, who sits on the throne in Edward’s stead. It’s an Avi tale for sure—the kind in which the Newbery Award-winning author brings the twisted history of Medieval England to life with all the intrigue and color of the times. Fast paced and action-packed, this new release is sure to please the author’s many fans!


Post-Apocalyptic vs Pre-Apocalyptic Fiction

I’ve blogged before about post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. These are forward-looking horror stories that either extrapolate from present trends or presuppose some civilization-ending disaster, leading to a world that is darker and diminished from the one we recognize.

Books in this genre can help us to better appreciate the world we have and, in the best of cases, inspire us to action necessary to preserve and protect our actual future. They are prophecies that must not come true, and every time our society comes up with a fresh anxiety, the post-apocalyptic genre evolves to include it.

On a seemingly unrelated topic, I’ve been immersed in Greek mythology for the past few months for my current writing project. That’s not enough time to become an expert, but just enough to start making connections. The other day, it struck me that many stories of Greek mythology fall into a genre that’s the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic fiction. They are, if anything, pre-apocalyptic.

In the 8th Century BC, Hesiod defined five ages of mankind. He believed that he was living in the Fifth Age, and he regretted not being born instead into the Fourth Age, the Age of Heroes, where the bulk of classical Greek mythology is set.

In the works of Homer, there are constant references to how the Fourth Age heroes of the Trojan War were better, stronger, and more glorious than the Fifth Age men of living memory. The way Homer described it, three or four men of the Fifth Age would be required just to lift the weapons that Fourth Age heroes wielded to battle each other.

Hesiod and Homer were telling stories set in a past that was better than the present, before some civilization-ending disaster led to a world that’s now darker and diminished from the one that came before. They are writing about stories set on the other side of an apocalypse, but one that’s in the past instead of the future.

In stories of Greek mythology, the problems in heaven get resolved by the gods outsourcing their problems, and increasing human suffering in the process.

For example, the insubordination of Prometheus was a problem for Zeus. He couldn’t tolerate other immortals going behind his back, subverting his will, and gifting mortals with awesome new technologies like fire. Just punishing Prometheus, by having an eagle tear out his liver on a daily basis, was only a partial solution. To really fix the matter, Zeus created Pandora and her box of plagues in order to make mortal life more difficult.

The story of Pandora is the story of an apocalypse, told by people living after the fact.

Another problem for Zeus was a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would outshine his father. To avoid being overthrown exactly like he overthrew his father, and like his father overthrew his grandfather, Zeus breaks up with Thetis and introduces her to a mortal. The child of prophecy, Achilles, turns out to be greater than a man but less than a god, and Zeus’s kingship is saved, at the cost of a decade-long war that cost so much blood and treasure that all of human society collapsed.

The story of the Trojan War represents another apocalypse, and is also told by people living after the fact.

When archaeologists discovered Troy, the date of its destruction matched the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse that toppled ancient civilizations like dominos from Italy to India. In the land that is now Greece, populations crashed, cities and farmland were destroyed or abandoned, technology regressed, culture regressed, skills and knowledge were lost, and writing all but disappeared.

The ensuing Dark Ages lasted for centuries. It was a post-apocalyptic time, during which the stories we know today as Greek mythology developed and spread through an oral tradition. These stories were a post-apocalyptic society’s backward look at the better, brighter times before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and a means for which they tried to explain what happened and why.

These pre-apocalyptic stories weren’t meant for us, or for any audience at our position in civilization’s grand cycle of ebb and flow. We aren’t capable of fully relating to them. But still, something about them appeals to us.

Given the choice, any of us would rather be living in a Golden Age while reading about a post-apocalyptic age, rather than the other way around. It’s hard for us to even imagine being among a post-apocalyptic audience, hearing a tale that can only be told orally, because literacy is no longer a thing, about an actual Golden Age that has become a time of fading legends.

But maybe we need these stories as well, to remind us that history is a cycle. Unimaginable things have happened in the past, and can happen again if we ignore the warnings in our post-apocalyptic stories.

And on a less depressing note… Homeric trivia!

  • The Trojan Horse doesn’t actually appear in the Iliad. That scene happens in a separate part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
  • Also not included in the Iliad, Achilles getting fatally shot in the ankle. That scene also happens in a part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
  • The epic cycle included an army of women led across the plains of Troy by an Amazon queen named Penthesilia, and an African army led by King Memnon of Aethiopia. That has been lost to us as well.

So why does every adaptation of the Trojan War recreate the death of Achilles and the deployment of a giant wooden horse while completely ignoring the armies of Penthesilia and Memnon?