Girlstart, STEM, and a Surprise

I have been honored and humbled with all the attention and goodwill that the #GreatGreeneChallenge has garnered. So many authors, booksellers, librarians, educators, and friends have stepped up to support the book. I want to do my part as well.

Therefore, I will donate $1.50 for every copy of The Great Greene Heist sold before and during the first week of release to Girlstart, a nonprofit that encourages girls’ interest and engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Specifically, I’ll be supporting their Summer Camp Scholarship fund called Send a Girl To Camp, which helps to sponsor girls for week-long camps focused on STEM programs.

As an engineer, the spouse of a former engineer, and the father of two girls, Girlstart’s mission is very personal to me. Perhaps my girls will become engineers or writers. (Or both!) Maybe they’ll become teachers or lawyers or librarians. Whatever they decide, I just want them to have as many opportunities as possible. Girlstart helps to open up those possibilities.

Please consider buying a book (including personalized books) to help support this program, or make a donation yourself. (Or both!)

(And yes, I said two girls! Baby #2 will make her appearance in early June!)


The Great Greene Heist Challenge

Updated to add: Thank you so much for participating in the #GreatGreeneChallenge. For all participating bookstores, please email me at vcj (at) varianjohnson (dot) com to let me know (1) that you participated in the challenge (if you’re not listed below) and (2) the number of books sold (if you’d like to provide that information). Again, there will be two giveaways–one for the store that sold the most books and another as a random drawing from all the stores that participated. There will also be separate giveaways for the “one-on-one” challenges.


Thanks to many friends, there’s been a lot of support for me and The Great Greene Heist.

Author Kate Messner issued the first challenge, stating:

“Speaking up is one great way to ask for change. But buying books may be an even better way.

At the end of the day, publishing is a business that needs to make money to survive. Given that reality, the best way for readers to ask for more diversity in children’s literature is not with words and tweets and blog posts alone but also with dollars.”

She encouraged readers to purchase a copy of the book from their local indie, with the idea that enough pre-sales could help the book make the New York Times Best Seller list and send a message that diversity in books matters.

Many wonderful independent bookstores, including Eight Cousins, Inc and Odyssey Bookshop got involved, and then author Shannon Hale upped the stakes, challenging other indies to join into the contest.

It’s all very, very humbling.

It also happened really fast, so we didn’t quite have the logistics in place for the contest. We’re still working out a few details, but here’s what you need to know:

The contest will run from now through June 30. (Pre-sales count as first week sales!)

I’ll be compiling a few sets of author goodies (signed books, swag, free Skype visits) contributed by many wonderful friends and authors.

1) One package will go to the bookstore that sells the most copies of The Great Greene Heist.

2) The second package will be a random drawing of all the bookstores that have “signed up” for the challenge (no purchase necessary, just need to know who you are).

3) A separate set of goodies (provided by me) will go to the winners of each “one-on-one” challenge.

I’ll update the list of giveaways as they come in, but so far:

1) Kate Messner is offering a free hour-long Skype writing workshop that the winning store can use for an in-store event or give away to a great teacher-librarian customer.

2) Grace Lin is giving a copy of The Great Greene Heist (along with artwork!!) away as part of the We Need Diverse Books Challenge and will give each participating bookstore a free print from her etsy store.

3) John Green is generously offering 10 signed copies of The Fault In Our Stars to any bookstore that can handsell 100 copies of The Great Greene Heist in the first month.

4) Skila Brown is donating a signed copies and bookmarks of Caminar, her debut novel-in-verse (which is a Junior Library Guild Selection and the recepient of starred reviews from Horn Book and School Library Journal).

5) Ally Condie is donating a signed hardcover set of the New York Times bestselling Matched trilogy.

6) Janet Fox is donating signed copies of her historical YA Forgiven.

7) Karen Sandler is donating a signed set of her Tankborn trilogy.

8) Author Bethany Hegedus, owner of The Writing Barn, has offered a 3 day/2 night writing retreat for two to the bookstore that handsells the most copies of The Great Greene Heist. The bookstore may gift the retreat to a deserving customer/writer/reader.

9) Signed books by author Donna Gephart.

These are the indies that have taken the challenge so far (that I’m aware of–I’ll update the list as I receive additional names):

One-one-One Challenges:

Eight Cousins, Inc (Falmouth, MA)
Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, MA)

Watermark Books (Wichita, KS) 
Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston, TX)

Aaron’s Books (Lititz, PA)
And the Rest of the Best:

While you can order the book from any retailer, PLEASE consider ordering from your local independent bookstore or one of the ones listed here.

Personalized Books:

In addition, I’m happy to announce that my two local indies, BookPeople and The Book Spot, will be selling personalized copies of The Great Greene Heist. BookPeople will also provide a signed copy of The Kelsey Job, a short prequel to TGGH, with each book sold.

If you’re an indie that would like to be included, either leave a comment here, email me at vcj (at) varianjohnson (dot) com, or send me a tweet at @varianjohnson.
And if you’re an author that would like to participate, (1) I would be forever in your debt and (2) email or tweet at the address above and I’ll give you additional details (or send a tweet to Shannon at @haleshannon, and she’ll get the info to me).
I would love for this book to become a best seller, but even if it doesn’t, I am so grateful for all the support is has received so far.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking part in the #GreatGreeneChallenge.

The Kelsey Job (or, the story behind the story)

Want to know the story behind the story of The Great Greene Heist? Check out The Kelsey Job, a short prequel that takes place a few months before the novel.

Also, since the last time I posted, a few nice things have happened with the novel. It received a number of positive reviews, including a starred review from Kirkus. It was also named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014 (one of three middle grade novels).

And one last thing: I received a few copies of the novel this week. This page, by far, is my favorite part of the book:

5 weeks and counting!

A New Cover!

…but first, check out all these awesome blurbs for  

“A political heist page-turner set in middle school? Is that even possible? Varian Johnson shows us how it’s done, expertly walking the tightrope between true-to-life school experiences and belly laughs.”

GORDON KORMAN, author of Swindle and The Hypnotists

“Pay attention! This terrific story speeds ahead on every page, but the lively characters will make you care enough to keep up. Do yourself a favor and start reading immediately.”
REBECCA STEAD, Newbery-winning author of
When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy

“The Great Greene Heist is one crazy cool caper!”

RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA, Newbery Honor-winning author
of One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be 11

“A smart, charming, and hilarious novel featuring one of my favorite protagonists in years. I’d follow Jackson Greene anywhere, and The Great Greene Heist is a fantastic ride.

MATT DE LA PEÑA, author of The Living and Mexican WhiteBoy

“This fast, funny heist novel takes the reader on a ride full of twists and turns. I’m a sucker for a good scam, and Jackson and his gang work one of the best in the business. Nice pull, Varian Johnson!”

JUDE WATSON, author of Loot and In Too Deep (The 39 Clues).

And here’s the revised cover!
After the release of the initial cover, Scholastic got feedback from a lot of channels, and there was an overall desire to see more of the OCEAN’S 11/James Bond nature of the book. At the same time, we all wanted to stay with the same illustrator (the uber-talented Kali Ciesemier) and retain the spirit of diversity from the old cover. 

I love this cover, and I hope you all do as well.

(I can’t believe that the novel will be out in a little over three months. Things are starting to happen behind the scenes…looking forward to sharing more soon!)

More Jackson Greene!

I posted this on my brand-new, ultra-underutilized Tumblr page, but I figured I’d post it on the good old blog as well:

Varian Johnson‘s TO CATCH A CHEAT, a sequel to his forthcoming middle-grade caper, THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, in which an eighth-grade con artist and his crew must reunite to clear their names after being framed for a prank and stop a group of cheaters from stealing a school exam, again to Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (World).

So happy to be working with Cheryl and the crew at Arthur A. Levine and Scholastic again! More soon!

2014, Day 1

I really hate making New Year’s Resolutions.
Let me clarify—I don’t hate making them, but I don’t do such a good job of keeping and tracking them. Last year, my goal was to write 1500 words a week. Did I hit it? Maybe. I never really tracked it, so it’s hard to say. Plus, I spent a lot of time revising The Great Greene Heist—and it’s hard to count those as new words, even though it often takes just as long to revise as to write a first draft.
So I’m not going to make any big, grandiose resolutions for the new year. However, there are a number of things I want to work on in 2014, including:

1)   Finding a way to balance day job / family / writing: This is always a struggle, finding a way to keep all the balls in the air. I want to continue to find ways to be more productive when writing and when working, so I’ll be able to physically and mentally “be” with my family when I’m at home. I’ve also gone back to writing in the mornings—it’s amazing how much work you can get done when everyone’s asleep. Of course, what will really help with this balance is—

2)  Being okay with saying “No”. 2012 was a really busy year for me—I accepted a lot of teaching and speaking engagement (including a 10-day stint as a grad assistant at VCFA, a week-long teaching assignment at the Highlights Foundation Full Novel Workshop, and speaking at NCTE in Las Vegas, among other things). I promised my family that I’d cut back in 2013. Even though I missed out of a number of events I usually attend, the time away was well worth it—I got a lot of writing done, and I had the opportunity to spend a lot more time with my daughter. I’ll be doing more events in 2014, but I still plan to be very deliberate about what I choose to do.

3)   Being an author and a writer: When I talk to new writers, I often say that there’s a big difference in Varian-the-writer and Varian-the-author. When I’m in writer-mode, I’m just worried about me and the page. But when I’m working as Varian-the-author, I have to deal with everything else in the business—marketing, contracts, taxes, speaking engagements, invoices and payments, etc. With a new book coming out this year, I know I can’t totally neglect all of the business stuff, but I also want to make sure I nurture the writing as well. Writing retreats are really good for that, and I’m hoping to take two in 2014. And really, the best marketing is writing a new, great book.

Sara’s clients at the S3Q2 retreat: me, Jessica, Rachel, Marianna & Amy Rose
I’m sure there are more things to work on, but now it’s time to write. Happy 2014, people.

Favorite of 2013 (and some stray thoughts)

This post by Joy Piedmont at Someday My Printz Will Come pretty much sums up why I adore Eleanor & Park.

Note 1: I don’t necessarily think it’ll win the Printz – my money’s on Boxers & Saints – but an honor would be a well-deserved recognition.

Note 2: I also loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

Note 3: I loved the music threads in both Eleanor & Park and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and would kill to read a novel that paid homage to late 80’s and early 90’s R&B / Rap / Hip-Hop in a similar way. If this book exists, please email me and let me know.

The Great Greene Heist

The Great Greene Heist
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic
Middle Grade
Summer 2014

Edited by Cheryl Klein
Designed by Nina Goffi
Cover Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

“If you’re going to pull a con, know how to pull a con in style.”

Catching Up and Open Mic

First of all, thanks so much for all the kind words and support you all showed concerning my blog post about the lack of black boys in middle grade literature. (Also, be sure to check out the comments—lots of good stuff there.) I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and while I don’t have a definitive solution to the problem, there are some things I know I can do to make a difference, such as:

1) Mentor more authors of color.
2) Mentor more authors writing about people of color.
3) Keep talking about the problem.
4) Continue to include diverse casts in my novels.
5) Buy books featuring people of color!

I’m not saying that my solutions are the only solutions, but I think they’re the best way for me to make a difference. I’ve already got two manuscripts lined up to read (one written by an African-American male, the other featuring an African-American male as the main character). Depending on my schedule, I hope to take on a few additional authors next year.

Finally, I can’t believe I haven’t posted about this, but I’m proud to be one of ten authors featured in the upcoming anthology, Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick, Sept 2013). The anthology, edited by author Mitali Perkins, has already been named a Junior Library Guild selection and will also be released as an audiobook. You can learn more about the anthology on Facebook and at the Candlewick website.

Here’s the full list of authors in order of appearance:

“Becoming Henry Lee” by David Yoo

“Why I Won’t Be Watching the Last Airbender Movie” by Gene Luen Yang

“Talent Show” by Cherry Cheva

“Voilà” by Debbie Rigaud

“Three-Pointer” by
Mitali Perkins

“Like Me” by Varian Johnson

“Confessions of a Black Geek” by Olubemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

“Under Berlin” by G. Neri

“Brotherly Love” by Francisco X. Stork

“Lexicon” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Where are all the black boys?

Last week, author and librarian Betsy Bird posted this on Twitter: “At the risk of sounding desperate, can anyone name me just ONE middle grade novel published in 2013 starring an African-American boy?”
She later followed up with a post listing all the books published in 2013 featuring African-American boys as main characters. If I’m counting correctly, the number is somewhere around eight. Maybe ten, when you count some of the small publishers.
You have no idea how depressed this makes me feel.
There are a lot of theories why these books aren’t being published. Maybe authors aren’t writing them. Maybe editors and agents aren’t acquiring them. Maybe readers don’t want them.
While this makes me worry about the state of the industry, I find myself first worrying about my daughter. My nieces. And especially my nephew.
I grew up in a time when there were very few books for young people featuring people of color. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see yourself in books. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see other authors that look like you writing books. As someone that had wanted to be an author since I was in second grade, it was…crushing.
Hell, it’s still crushing. Have you ever scanned the shelves at your local bookstore? If the real world were like the YA section, I wouldn’t exist.
Knocking on wood—I have a new book coming out next year. It’s my first middle grade, and while it features an ensemble cast, the main character is a thirteen-year-old African-American boy. As of today, it’s titled THE GREAT GREENE HEIST (published by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, edited by Executive Editor Cheryl Klein). It’s about…well, a heist.
(Sorry, but I don’t do well with describing my own books. And while I’m at it, sorry for all the disclaimers, but in publishing, nothing is ever set in stone until the book’s on the shelves.)
Selfishly, I worry that no one will buy the book. Either people will think it’s not relevant to them because it features a black boy. Or they won’t buy it because they’ll think it’s about slavery or racism. Or people won’t buy it because it’s NOT true Black History Month material. (Or it could just suck, but that’s a worry shared by the majority of authors.)
I try not to obsess about things like this, but given the industry’s track record, can you blame me?
I also worry that with such a small sampling of books that feature African-American boys, my book will have to do double or triple or quadruple duty. Being a fun caper novel won’t be enough. It’ll have to be more. More literary. More commercial. More accessible. More poignant.
I know this is crazy talk. This is the type of talk that puts authors in a forever do-loop with a manuscript. I know this—but still, I worry.
I feel fortunate that this book is being published by Cheryl and the folks at AAL /Scholastic. I trust that they’ll make the right decisions about the cover—whether it features a brown face or not. I trust that they’ll do what is best to get the book in the hands of all readers, not just ones with brown faces. (And please, please read this blog post about judging coversby Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and editor at large of Scholastic’s Trade Books. Even as an author of color, I struggle with this issue.)
I’m working on a new project now, and it’s tough going. But in a day or so, I’ll try to forget about publishing statistics and book covers and authorial responsibility and all the other crap that can weight an author down. And then I’ll get back to work.