This is one of my new favorite reads! Varian Johnson has skillfully created a story that is part mystery, part historical fiction, part realistic fiction, and it is TOTALLY engaging. The issue of racism and the systemic oppression of Black people in America is presented in a way that is appropriate for intermediate/middle grade readers.
Chapter book, fiction
by Varian Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018
YHBA nominee, 2020-2021
5 out of 5 stars
Candice is 12-years-old and finds herself facing a horrible summer in Lambert, South Carolina. Her mother is trying to sell their home in Atlanta, so they have come to spend the summer in the house that belonged to her grandmother, who has been dead for two years. Being there makes her miss her grandmother, while she also misses her friends from home, and her father, who has been divorced from her mother for six months.
Candice is reluctantly introduced to the 11-year-old who lives across the street, and she finds that she and Brandon both share a love of reading and could use a friend to make the summer bearable. While exploring her grandmother’s attic one day, looking for books to read, Candice discovers a letter that her grandmother left for her.
The letter reveals a mysterious treasure hunt that centers around a woman named Siobhan Washington. Candice and Brandon work together to uncover clues that lead them to uncover way more than treasure. They learn about the history of Lambert and the Washington family, while they also learn more about themselves and each other.
The characters and town are well-developed, authentic, and engaging. Some chapters, which are on darker gray paper, are told from the viewpoint of different people from the past that Candice and Brandon learn about. It is in these historical chapters that we, the reader, learn details that fill in missing parts of the story that Candice and Brandon do not know about. It is really masterful the way Johnson provides the additional insight, while not giving away too many clues, keeping the puzzle solution just out of our reach.
Solving the mystery is the central focus of the book, yet Johnson also tackles themes of bullying, divorce, LGBTQ+, police brutality, death, segregation, and racism. He even includes one of my pet peeves — gendering of books (boy books vs. girl books). What makes this such a strong story is that all these themes are tied to a well-developed plot and characters and the story never lags or feels overwhelming, but tackles all of these issues in a authentic way. There are also plenty of humorous moments.
There is an extensive Author’s Note at the end of the book that provides more information about the racism and segregation that the reader encounters in the story, and how the story connects to the actual history of the 1950s and 60s.
I highly recommend this book as a read-aloud, especially for grades 3-5.