Playing the Cards You're Dealt

're dealt

“Spades is a trick-taking card game devised in the United States in the 1930s...The object is to take the number of tricks (also known as ‘books’) that were bid before play of the hand began. Spades is a descendent of the Whist family of card games, which also includes Bridge, Hearts, and Oh Hell. Its major difference as compared to other Whist variants is that, instead of trump being decided by the highest bidder or at random, the Spade suit always trumps, hence the name.”

-- Wikipedia “Spades (Card Game)”

“Love the girl who holds

The world in a paper cup

Drink it up

Love her and she’ll bring you luck”

-- Kenny Loggins, “Danny’s Song” (1971)

In PLAYING THE CARDS YOU’RE DEALT, author Varian Johnson deftly addresses both addiction and consent in a heartwarming contemporary middle grade novel appropriate for 8-12 year-olds.

Short-statured, fifth grader, Ant (Anthony) Joplin is a pretty good spades player. His big brother Aaron, now away at college, is the two-time reigning champion of the town’s annual spades tournament. The two brothers have spades in their blood--their father Roland taught them well.

Unfortunately, their father has serious problems--drinking and gambling addictions. I’ll leave it to you to judge their father for what is gradually revealed, but he’s gotten caught at it again and Ant’s mom has kicked him out--again:

“‘Ant sat up. ‘He was really drinking?’

She nodded. ‘His trunk is full of liquor bottles. There are probably more at his office.’

Ant blinked, willing himself not to cry. He did not want to break. To be weak. Not now.

‘I’m so glad I overheard you talking,’ she continued. ‘If you hadn’t woken me up, there's no telling how long this would have gone on.’

That didn’t make Ant feel better at all. It wasn’t like he planned on waking her up. He had wanted to figure this problem out for himself--to get his father to confess--before getting his mother involved.

She downed the rest of her coffee. ‘Sweetie, how much do you remember about when your dad was drinking? You know...before?

Ant thought about it. ‘Not much. My first real memory of him is of us walking to school on the first day of kindergarten.’

His mom smiled, and for a second, all those creases and wrinkles melted away. ‘He was so happy. So proud of you! And you loved him so much. It was easy for you to accept your father coming back home. Both you boys.’

‘Dad told me that he never went to one of those treatment centers.’ Ant began to trace invisible words into the table with his index finger. ‘But then how did he stop drinking? Where was he? Six weeks is a long time to be gone.’

Ant’s mother watched as his fingers fluttered across the table. ‘Your father wasn’t gone for six weeks,’ she finally said. ‘He was gone for two years.’

Ant’s eyes sprang open. Wait. What? But--’

‘I know. He just couldn’t give it up. And I couldn’t let him stay. Drinking--it can change a person. Turn them into someone you barely recognize. You were so little when he left, and somewhere along the way, you heard that famous celebrities go to those clinics for six weeks to get over their addictions. I wasn’t brave enough to burst your bubble.’”

Meanwhile, Ant had planned on entering the youth division of the spades tournament with his best friend Jamal. But Jamal started a fight at school and now is not allowed to play. The fight takes place right after Shirley moves to town and becomes the new kid in Ant and Jamal’s class.

Shirley and Ant have a forgotten bond--they played together as rugrats because their moms were old friends who will now get to reconnect. Ant is really impressed and intrigued by Shirley. She’s sharp and an excellent spades player. They end up agreeing to partner up for the tournament. But is it just a card deal...or the real deal, as in girlfriend and boyfriend? Young readers will glean some good advice about consent on the fifth grade level (as in hand-holding and kissing). The interactions and developing trust between Ant and Shirley really touched me.

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve been reading books aloud over the phone to my eight-year-old grandson. Varian Johnson’s THE PARKER INHERITANCE remains one of his favorites. This one is another winner.

Thanks to Ant and Shirley, me and my grandson (mostly me) have been frequenting an online site, where one can get up to speed by playing spades alongside a trio of computer-generated celebrity players (like Einstein and Beyonce).

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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Literary powerhouse and Coretta Scott King Honor- and Boston Globe / Horn Book Honor-winning author of The Parker Inheritance Varian Johnson explores themes of toxic masculinity and family legacy in this heartfelt, hopeful story of one boy discovering what it really means to be a man.


Ten-year-old Anthony Joplin has made it to double digits! Which means he's finally old enough to play in the spades tournament every Joplin Man before him seems to have won. So while Ant's friends are stressing about fifth grade homework and girls, Ant only has one thing on his mind: how he'll measure up to his father's expectations at the card table.


Then Ant's best friend gets grounded, and he's forced to find another spades partner. And Shirley, the new girl in his class, isn't exactly who he has in mind. She talks a whole lot of trash -- way more than his old partner. Plus, he's not sure that his father wants him playing with a girl. But she's smart and tough and pretty, and knows every card trick in the book. So Ant decides to join forces with Shirley -- and keep his plans a secret.

Only it turns out secrets are another Joplin Man tradition. And his father is hiding one so big it may tear their family apart...---from the publisher

320 pages                                  978-1338348538               Ages 8-12

Keywords:  African American author, African American, dysfunctional family, addiction, abuse, secrets, father/son, 8 year old, 9 year old, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, Black and African American stories, games, friends, friendship


“With a deft hand, Johnson shows us there's no such thing as "too young" when it comes to questioning big ideas like manhood, or even family.” –Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling author of Look Both Ways and Stamped


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