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…

Raw emotion greets you at every turn. An omniscient narrator—not used too often in MG—takes you through the 52 chapters. Their identity is revealed in the final pages. It’s perfect choice to convey this heartfelt tale.

Spades is a card game I knew nothing about (I’m more of a Five Crowns player). Early on you get the rules explained and through several matches it starts to make sense. Ant is good at the game but his only tournament play came to an embarrassing end. This year he vows to be a winner in his dad’s eye’s.

Set in present day South Carolina all the characters are memorable. They feel like neighbors. That’s due to the exquisite writing throughout.

I love what Mr. Johnson says in his insightful Publishers Weekly lead to the interview about his new book: “readers find parts that make them laugh, and parts that perhaps make them cry. I hope they see something that makes them think about the world we live in, and the little ways we can make it better by being kinder to our fellow humans.”

He succeeds on all fronts.

PAGE COUNT: 320 BOOK BIRTHDAY: October 5, 2021


  1. Solid chapter endings. Some had me laughing out loud while others left me biting my bottom lip to keep the emotions in check.
  2. The emerging friendship between Ant and Shirley is handled with sweetness and care. There are many bumps along the way and those add to the appeal of these two.
  3. The harsh realities of a gambling and alcohol addiction hovers over the family in different ways. They all are honestly revealed in the climatic ending scenes.
  4. Small town life is portrayed in an appealing way and give the story even more heart.
  5. The community here is Black but what they have to say enriches any color, any place. Their voice rings true for all.


Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including The Parker Inheritance, which won both Coretta Scott King Author Honor and Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor awards; The Great Greene Heist, an ALA Notable Children’s book and Kirkus Reviews Best Book; and the graphic novel Twins, illustrated by Shannon Wright, an NPR Best Book.

Varian was born in Florence, South Carolina, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a BS in Civil Engineering. He later received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is honored to now be a member of the faculty. Varian lives outside of Austin, TX with his family.


Comments are welcome below. Be sure to visit the other bloggers on today’s edition of MMGM.

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...always striving to reach the next peak in my life and career.
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  1. petespringerauthor says:

    I just finished The Parker Inheritance, which was excellent. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

  2. So many good reviews of Varian Johnson’s latest realistic MG novel. Thanks for sharing, Greg! I am one of the few readers who did not love The Parker Inheritance, so I want to give this book a try!

  3. I’ve seen this title around and was curious about this one. From your review, it sounds like a book I’d like. Thanks.

  4. Danielle Hammelef says:

    I received an ARC and enjoyed the characters, friendships, family drama, as ell as how the author tackles the tough subjects for a middle grade audience. I now have The Parker Inheritance to read.

  5. I am not familiar with the card game Spades — I don’t really play cards. But if it involves strategy, I’m sure that it is a great book. Haven’t seen card games in other MG books. The author packs a lot into this novel and it does sound like a very good story with a big secret. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful review!

  6. This sounds good! I like that there are 52 chapters to match the number of cards in a deck! I am unfamiliar with Spades as a game, but I am definitely intrigued.

  7. I haven’t played Spades in years and years. It will be nice to get a refresher course when I read this. It’s going on my TBR list. It sounds great. It will be interesting to read a book with an omniscient narrator. It has been a while. Thanks for telling me about this book.

  8. Completely Full Bookshelf says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read any of Varian Johnson’s books (although his graphic novel with Shannon Wright, Twins, is on my shelves), but this book sounds like such a compelling read! The emotions definitely sound strong in this read. And I will say I’m not familiar with spades, but I do play gin rummy with one of my relatives for fun sometimes. Thanks so much for the great review!

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