Growing up, Varian Johnson loved to read but struggled to find books that reflected his experience. All of the books he could find with African-American characters were about slavery or the civil rights movement, which had little to do with his life growing up in the 1980s. “We, people of color, we don’t have a single story,” he says. “We deserve to be seen in all types of stories, and it would frustrate me very greatly when I felt that I couldn’t find those types of books.”
Eventually, however, he found the works of Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton, which depict a different kind of African-American experience, one much more relevant to his own life. “Seeing myself in those books was a really powerful feeling, a feeling that you existed in a book that’s not a book that’s set in the 1850s, 1860s, a book that’s contemporary,” he says. “I just loved that feeling; I wanted to reproduce it.”
His own books are the product of that desire. His latest, The Parker Inheritance, recounts the adventures of middle schoolers Candace and Brandon as they attempt to unravel a puzzle leading to millions of dollars and the mystery of the man behind them. They chase down leads and puzzle over clues while trying to cope with more ordinary problems, like Candace’s parents’ getting divorced or Brandon’s being targeted by a bully. Meanwhile, flashbacks show the reader the events 50 years ago that led to the creation of this challenge: A brash black coach gets into a feud with a powerful white man, leading to a tennis match between the black and white high schools that has terrible consequences for everyone involved.
Like his protagonists, Johnson was a bookish kid who was obsessed with the power of story. At family gatherings, he and his siblings would stay up late to eavesdrop on the adults as they told stories. He also loved to read and did so widely. One of his favorite authors was Judy Blume, but as a boy, he worried he’d be mocked for his enjoyment of “girl books.” “That’s a horrible feeling,” he says, “having something you want to read desperately and being afraid what someone else is gonna say.”
Johnson soon learned to also love math and science. “I struggled sometimes with folks saying you can only do one thing and not another,” he says. “Why can’t you do both?” So he went ahead with his plan to balance these interests, getting a degree in engineering and pursuing writing on the side.
That background in math came in handy for The Parker Inheritance.Inspired by Ellen Raskin’s novel The Westing Game, Johnson wanted to create a puzzle book, “something where the reader could really be an active participant in trying to discover what’s happening in the book.” Building the puzzle turned out to be the simplest part of the process, though. A story to go with it eluded him.
“Then I got this idea about telling a story about perception and how people see what they want to see, believe what they want to [believe], hear what they want to hear,” he says. The puzzle is tricky precisely because it seems to be about one thing while actually being about another, so playing with this idea in the novel was a perfect fit.”
The Parker Inheritance builds on this inspiration to speak powerfully to the ways in which we often feel that we need to hide our truth behind a more acceptable image, the limits to who can make those choices, and the emotional cost of hiding who you really are.
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.