A Slightly Different Take on A FINE DESSERT

There’s been a lot of talk about A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. I won’t rehash everything–you can check out posts at American Indians in Children’s Literature and Reading While White to learn more.

A lot of people are upset about the book.

I am not.

Some background–in many ways, I see myself as the ideal purchaser of this book. I am African-American, with two picture-book age daughters. I grew up in South Carolina, about 120 miles from Charleston. I am descended from slaves from South Carolina (at least as far back as we can tell; history is not kind in that regard.) Most importantly, I love blackberries. (I even featured them in a YA novel, which is sadly out of print….)

So I was extremely excited when I first heard about this picture book. I was especially happy that the author and illustrator showcased a diverse set of people in the book. And then, very quickly, I learned of the book’s troubling content. What reviewers were saying made sense, but I wanted to read the book for myself before passing judgement.

I finally purchased A Fine Dessert. I read it. And read it again. And again. And studied each illustration.

And you know–it works. For me. What especially makes it work is the Author and Illustrator’s notes at the end. This book was made for discussion; more so, the creators seem to be urging for that discussion to take place. (I wonder–should the creator notes be considered part of the “book”? A discussion for another day.)

I see why many people view the book as insensitive. The illustrations of the slave girl certainly made me pause. But I also see the illustrations of the slave family as a gateway for meaningful conversations with my daughters–about slavery, artistic choice, and finding joy in the midst of great sorrow. That being said, I don’t know if the book works for young readers without an adult there to facilitate discussion–which perhaps is a fatal flaw.

I understand why many people are upset about the book. And I don’t want (or have the right) to invalidate another reader’s feelings about the book.

But for me, A Fine Dessert works.

Cover Reveal: To Catch A Cheat

I’m thrilled to post the cover for the next Jackson Greene book, TO CATCH A CHEAT! Coming January 2016 from Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic….

The blurb from Goodreads: Jackson Greene is riding high. He is officially retired from conning, so Principal Kelsey is (mostly) off his back. His friends have great new projects of their own. And as he’s been hanging out a lot with Gaby de la Cruz, he thinks maybe, just maybe, they’ll soon have their first kiss.

Then Jackson receives a link to a faked security video that seems to show him and the rest of Gang Greene flooding the school gym. The thugs behind the video threaten to pass it to the principal–unless Jackson steals an advance copy of the school’s toughest exam. So Jackson devises a three-part plan to foil the blackmailers, clear his friends’ names for good, and trap the true bad guys along the way. As Gang Greene executes another multistep caper full of twists and turns, they learn that sometimes it takes a thief to catch a cheat.

And while I’m posting, here’s the cover for the trade paperback of THE GREAT GREENE HEIST (which was released a few months ago)!

Both were designed by Nini Goffi, with art by Kali Ciesemier. Beautiful, right?

End of the Summer Update

Congratulations to all the bookstores participating in the Great Greene Challenge! I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I can say it enough —thank you so, so, so much for supporting me, The Great Greene Heist, and diverse books. I am beyond humbled. I’ll be shipping out prizes to the winners (Watermark Books– the Grand Prize Winner with the most book sold!), Odyssey Bookshop (winner of the challenge against Eight Cousins) and Flyleaf Books (winner of the random drawing) at the end of the month.
I’ll be on the road a lot this fall—check the calendar for dates. I’m kicking things off in New York on Tuesday speaking at the Scholastic Teacher Weekand on a panel at Books of Wonder — I would love to see you there or at any of my other events. (Also, I have limited availability for school visits for 2014-2015, but please email me if you’re interested.)
Finally, I’m happy to report that The Great Greene Heist is both in its second printing (Woot!) and is also a featured pick for the Fall 2014 Scholastic Book Fair. They even made a spiffy video. (I always thought there was a bit more bass in my voice….)
P.S.: The main reason that I’ve been MIA from the blog this summer:

Introducing Sydney Leanne. (Pic taken 2 months ago….)

It’s on the shelves (and I’m talking about it)!

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST is now available! You can pick up signed / personalized copies at BookPeople and The Book Spot. The book is also available from your local independent bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-A-Million, and anywhere else books are sold.

If you’re interested in hearing me talk more about the book, check out the following interviews and blog posts:

– At Kirkus Reviews, I talk about the importance of diversity and dropping the reader right into the story.

– At Nerdy Book Club, I talk about my own “code of conduct” in writing the novel.

– At Project Middle Grade Mayhem, I talk about the inspiration behind the book and how my time at VCFA shaped the story.

– And, on Sunday, June 1st at 1:00 CST, I’ll be talking with Hopeton Hay on KAZI 88.7. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can stream the station live.

Love that button!

As a reminder, 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.

Save for a few events such as my joint launch with Jennifer Ziegler and Greg Leitich Smith (details coming soon), the #SharpSchuBookClub, and LeakyCon (!!!), I’m taking the summer off, but I’ll be back on the road in the fall.

Thanks so much for the support!

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!