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Cover Reveal Q&A: PLAYING THE CARDS YOU’RE DEALT by Varian Johnson

What does 2021 have? Well, for one thing, it has a new book by Varian Johnson (you know how I felt about his last one).

It’s called Playing the Cards You’re Dealt, it publishes on October 1st, 2021, and today we’ll have a first look at the cover.

But before that, I asked Varian some questions about the book.

Travis: What was the inspiration behind Playing the Cards You’re Dealt?

Varian Johnson: Well, Playing the Cards You’re Dealt is my first prose novel since The Parker Inheritance. And after writing Parker, I knew that I wanted to write something totally different from that book. While I love a good puzzle, I didn’t want to be known as an author who only writes mysteries.

So, I began to think about other genres I enjoy. I love funny books—like Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go To Birmingham and Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer. I also love books about card games. There have been quite a few children’s books about poker, and even one about bridge (Louis Sachar’s wonderful The Cardturner). But there weren’t many (if any) books about the games I loved growing up. The games important to my community. So, I decided to write a book about spades.

Just to be clear, I love the game of spades. I mean—LOVE it. I’ve been playing since I was a kid. But it’s not just the actual playing of the cards that drew me to it, but the gamesmanship. In my community, spades has its own vernacular; its own cadence. Sure, anyone could plunk down a card and say that they were playing spades, but in my circle, you had to have style in order to play. You had to have confidence. Dare I say, you had to have a little swagger. And for me, while I was usually pretty quiet and introverted when it came to most things, I love to brag and trash-talk when I played spades.

But a book can be about many things, so I also wanted to explore when that confidence—when that swagger—becomes twisted and polluted. When it turns from assertiveness to aggression. I wanted to explore toxic masculinity—not just how it manifests itself in gamesmanship, but how it comes to define some people’s very lives. I wanted to explore how it feeds on depression and substance abuse, and how it’s passed from generation to generation. 

Travis: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

Varian: Well, I thought the hardest part of writing the book would be trying to balance showing the characters playing spades while giving the reader enough information to understand the game. But it turned out that the hardest part of writing the book was figuring out the ending. Let’s just say, I had to really think about what Ant, the main character, was truly playing for before I could (try to) stick the landing.

Travis: What was the cover process like – did you have input or know illustrator Frank Morrison?

Varian: Ha! When your editor tells you that Frank Morrison is illustrating your cover, you don’t say much. You just shut up and wait for genius to come forth. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Frank a few times. I’m a huge fan of his work, and I am honored that he illustrated the cover. He really brought Ant—and his friends and family—to life. And most importantly to me—he made Ant look like a kid from my neighborhood. He looks like a kid I would have grown up with. He looks real.

Travis: Important question: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?

Varian: Oh…for many years, gummy bears were by go-to snack. And, they still are. But age (and being at home for most of 2020) have done a number on my midsection, so I’m trying to cut back on the sweets. So I’ll say blackberries and cherries, if only because that’s what I ate while writing this.

Thanks, Varian! Now, for the first time, the cover for Playing the Cards You’re Dealt, by Varian Johnson (cover illustration by Frank Morrison):

From the publisher:

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 what 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…

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. That cover is straight fire.