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Round Rock author Varian Johnson explores toxic masculinity, friendship and more in new book

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Author Varian Johnson at his home in Round Rock on Sept. 28. Johnson played spades as a kid and the game figures into his new book, "Playing the Cards You're Dealt."

Ant’s got a goal. He wants to win the town’s spades tournament, just like his older brother did (twice).  

But as fifth grade begins, Ant has tons to deal with besides cards. His father’s business isn’t doing well, and his dad’s been gone a lot lately. Ant’s best friend Jamal sometimes veers from trash talk into mean talk. And then there’s the new girl in his class, Shirley.  

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Austin author Varian Johnson spotlights Ant’s journey in his newest book for middle-graders, “Playing the Cards You’re Dealt” (Scholastic, $16.99). He’ll launch it with a virtual event at 6 p.m. Oct. 6 at BookPeople, in conversation with Newbery medalist Erin Entrada Kelly. Registration is free, and signed and personalized books are for sale. 

Part of Johnson’s inspiration came from a summer STEM program he and his twin brother attended at Florida A&M University when they were 16. It was a milestone trip from his hometown of Florence, S.C., in many ways.   

“Every character is a little bit like me,” author Varian Johnson says of his new book, "Playing the Cards You're Dealt," which is out in October.

“It was really this eye-opening thing to be there and seeing kids my age sharing a dorm room with kids who were older. It was easy to look up to those (college) freshmen and sophomores who were there for summer school,” he said in a phone interview.  

“Some of them would have a great demeanor and be great to hang out with ... but then they would say something really mean toward women, or they would start to drink and start to act a little differently. It really opened my eyes as to how nuanced and multifaceted people are, and also how folks can seem really great on the surface, but maybe not underneath.” 

His love for STEM endured. Johnson earned his engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, and designed bridges as a full-time civil engineer until 2016. But he was also a fan of English class and creative writing, publishing his first book shortly after he and his wife moved to Austin in 2004 so she could attend graduate school.  

Fast forward a few years and Johnson is the author of multiple award-winning middle-grade books, including the Coretta Scott King-honored “The Parker Inheritance,” the caper novels “The Great Greene Heist” and “To Catch a Cheat,” and the graphic novel “Twins,” illustrated by Shannon Wright.  

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In “Playing the Cards You’re Dealt,” he draws on that summer of study as well as his own love of spades to tell Ant’s story, a tale that also delves into themes of toxic masculinity, friendship and partnership. 

Ten-year-old Ant — a nickname Anthony’s not 100 percent sure he likes anymore, since it just draws attention to his small stature — has lots of examples of what it means to be a man. His dad keeps encouraging him to toughen up, which makes Ant remember how he couldn’t stop the tears when he and Jamal lost in the very first round of last year’s spades tournament. His brother seems to have it all figured out, with stellar grades and a spot at a prestigious boarding school. Ant also notices how Jamal and his older brother, Taj, are tight-lipped about their mother’s troubles, but are quick to dole out insults.  

Writer Varian Johnson says a trip he and his twin brother took to a summer STEM camp at Florida A&M University when they were 16 is part of the inspiration for his new book.

“Every character is a little bit like me,” Johnson said. “Ant is a little bit like me, where I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I think that’s OK, and I want readers of my book to see that and realize it’s OK too.   

“Ant has seen all of these people — his father especially, and Jamal — really close off their feelings and hide them. It's really a pressure keg. It creates turmoil by not opening up. … Over time, Ant recognizes that he really needs to tell people about what’s going on in his life, so he doesn’t have to feel that burden all by himself.” 

Ant ends up confiding in Shirley, who turns out to be an excellent spades player herself. While there are hints of a crush, the duo’s partnership in and out of the game shows Ant what true friendship can look like. Their support brings out the best in each other.  

And when Ant goes over to Shirley’s house for practice, Ant’s surprised at what her mother asks:  

“She opened her arms. ‘I’d love a hug — that is, if you’re okay with it.’ 

“Ant frowned. He’d never heard an adult ask if a kid wanted to be hugged. His aunts and uncles sure never did when they smoothed the life out of him or patted the top of his head.” 

Weaving in age-appropriate examples of consent was important to Johnson, he said, particularly in a story about masculinity.  

“I would love to normalize consent,” he said. “I hate how in some ways there's a big cloud that hangs over this: ‘Am I dorky, am I overthinking it?’ It gets really overblown. I think we need to just start a little younger and talk about consent in a way that makes sense. I think if we can make it more normal, then it doesn’t have to be a big thing.” 

“Playing the Cards You’re Dealt” has become a more personal story for Johnson since the death of his father earlier this year, he said.  

“I’ve been thinking about him a lot, and the importance of fathers and men and boys or children and their people, their guardians. That's an important job in life. You can have fun, and it's cool if someone looks up to you, but there’s a responsibility to that, too.”