Review of the Day: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
What is the ultimate child fantasy? I’m not talking bubble gum sheets or wizards that tell you you’re “the chosen one”. Let’s think a little more realistically here. When a kid looks at the world, what is almost attainable but just out of their grasp for the moment? Autonomy, my friends. Independence. The ability to make your own rules and to have people fall in line. Often this dream takes the form of numerous orphan novels (it’s a lot easier to be independent if you don’t have any pesky parents swooping about), tales in which the child is some form of royalty (orphaned royalty, nine times out of ten), and other tropes. But for some kids, independence becomes a lot more interesting when it’s couched in their familiar, everyday, mundane world. Take middle school as one such setting. It’s a place a lot of kids know about, and it wouldn’t take much prodding for readers to believe that beneath the surface it’s a raging cesspool of corruption and crime. The joy of a book like The Great Greene Heist is manifold, but what I think I’ll take away from it best is author Varian Johnson’s ability to make this a story about a boy who knows how to do something very well (pulling cons) while also telling a compelling tale of a kid who knows what it means to be in charge and never abuses that power. If the ultimate child fantasy is to be in charge, the logical extension of that is to be the kind of person who is also a good leader. With that in mind, this book is poised to make a whole lotta kids very happy.
Since The Blitz at the Fitz the former con king Jackson Greene has gone straight. Trained in the art of conning by his own grandfather, Jackson’s the kind of guy you’d want on your side when things go down. Yet he seems perfectly content to put that all behind him, just tending the flowers of his garden club like he’s a normal kid or something. Normal, that is, before he gets wind that something shady is going on and it involves the upcoming school election. Gabriela de la Cruz (a.k.a. Gabby), the girl he inadvertently betrayed, is running for Class President against the ruthless Keith Sinclair. Worse? It looks like Sinclair and his dad have the principal in their pocket and that no matter what Gabby does she’ll be facing a defeat. Now it’s time for Greene to come out of retirement and assemble a crack team to use Keith and the principal’s worst instincts to their ultimate advantage. All it’s going to take is the greatest con Maplewood Middle School has ever seen.
To write a good con novel you have to be a writer confident in your own abilities. Johnson exudes that confidence, particularly when he takes risks. Since, at its essence, this is the story about a boy tricking a girl into doing what he wants, it would be easy for Johnson to slip up at any time and make the storyline either condescending or downright offensive. That he manages not to do this is nothing short of a minor miracle of modern writing. Much of this book is also actively engaged in the act of testing the reader’s sympathies. Johnson is misdirecting his readers as often as he is misdirecting his characters and he’s doing it with the given understanding that if they stick with the story they’ll be amply rewarded with more sympathetic motivations later on down the line. To do this in a book for kids is risky. You’re asking your readers to look at your hero as an antihero. And even if they’re sympathetic to his cause, will that translate into them continuing to read the book? In this case . . . yes.
One takeaway I took from this novel was the fact that Johnson really knows his age bracket. More to the point, he knows what kids today are really like. At first I found myself confused when I discovered that The Tech Club and The Gamer Club in this book were two very distinct and different entities. Under the old rules of middle school literature, anything that sniffed of video games or techie concerns would have been filed under “hopeless geekdom”. But in the 21st century we’re all geeks on some level. We’re all hooked up to our phones and computers. Big plot points in this book focus on the bribing of other kids with video games. The lines are blurring and at no point does anyone, even a bully, call another kid a nerd or geek. That isn’t to say that the bullies are nice or anything. It’s just that when it comes to base insults, some terms just don’t always carry the same cache. The nerds may make our toys but that still doesn’t mean a lot of us are going out and befriending them.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dearth of kids of color in books for children. Last year I tried to count as many middle grade books starring African-American boys and I topped out at around six or seven (and most of those were written by celebrities). With its truly multicultural cast (name me the last time you read a contemporary book for kids where TWO of the characters were Asian-American and not twins) and black boy hero dead front and center on the cover, we’re looking at a rare beast in the market. Author Varian Johnson also does a dandy job at avoiding certain tropes that librarians and teachers have grown to detest. For example, one way of making it clear what a character’s skin color is (or eye shape) is to compare them to food. I’m sure you’ve read your own fair share of books where the hero had “caramel colored skin” or “almond shaped eyes”. After a while you begin to wonder why the white kids aren’t being described as having “cottage cheese tinted cheeks” or “eyes as round as malted milk balls”. Johnson, for his part, is straightforward. When he wants to make it clear that someone’s black he just says they have “brown skin and black, curly hair”. See? How hard is that?
He also tackles casual racism with great skill and aplomb. At one point Jackson is facing the school’s senior administrative assistant. She says to him “Boys like you are always up to one thing or another.” Jackson’s response? “He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” That is incredibly subtle for a middle school book. Some kids won’t pick up on it at all, while others will instantly understand what it is that Johnson is getting at. Because this character is minor (and her assumptions get neatly turned against her later) this storyline is not pursued, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t appreciated. Racism lives on long and strong in the modern world, but few authors for kids think it necessary to point out the fact. They should. It’s important.
Now you would think that since I walked into this knowing it was a kind of junior high Ocean’s 11 I’d have been on the lookout for the twist. All good con films have a twist. Sometimes the twist is good. Sometimes it’s unspeakably lame or capable of stretching your credulity to its limits. I am therefore happy to report that not only does The Great Greene Heist keep you from remembering that twist is coming, when it does come adult readers will be just as flummoxed by it as the kids.
If I were to change one thing about the book, it would be to include something additional. For some readers, keeping characters straight can be difficult. Johnson respects his readers’ instincts and intelligence, so he drops them almost mid-stream into the story. You have to get caught up with Jackson and Gabby’s falling out, and when we start our tale we’re in the aftermath of a once grand friendship. That’s fine, but had a character list been included in the beginning of the book as well, I would have had an easier time distinguishing between each new person we meet. I read this book in an early galley edition, so perhaps this problem will be changed by the time the book reaches publication, but if not then be aware that some readers may need a bit of help parsing the who is who right at the beginning.
You know, we talk a lot about the lack of diversity in our books for kids these days. There’s this two-headed belief that either kids won’t pick up a book with a kid of color on the cover and/or that such books are never fun. And certainly while it may be true that the bulk of multicultural literature for children does delve into serious subjects, there are exceptions to every rule. I look at this book and I think of Pickle by Kimberly Baker. I think of fun books that look amusing and will entice readers. Books that librarians and booksellers will be able to handsell with ease by merely describing the plot. With its fun cover, great premise, and kicky writing complete with twist, this book fulfills the childhood desire for autonomy while also knocking down stereotypes left and right. That it’s like nothing else out there for kids today is a huge problem. Let us hope, then, that it is a sign of more of the same to come.
On shelves May 27th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Pickle by Kim Baker – Similar, but less a con novel than a pranking novel. Both types of stories require that the kids be in charge and the adults fall in line.
- The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander – If The Great Greene Heist has an Ocean’s 11 feel then The Fourth Stall is The Godfather. Nothing wrong with that.
- Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg – A highly underrated novel and almost completely forgotten thanks to its gawdawful cover. But this joke on the hard-boiled cop genre definitely reminded me of the tone Varian Johnson set with his own book.
- You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin – Perhaps only because it features cliques as distinct entities vying for power, but that’s enough for me. But it’s YA so make note of that as well.
First Sentence: “As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria – his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket – he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking.”
Notes on the Cover: Yes. Yes and also thank you. Now granted, the original cover was pretty cool. Seen here:
But at least they kept the same artist. Now it has more of a movie poster feel. Nothing wrong with that. As long as Jackson himself is front and center that is all I care. Good show, Scholastic. Way to knock it out of the park!
Other Blog Reviews:
- The book has become a bit of a touchstone for diversity discussions as of late. Thanks in large part to Kate Messner independent bookstores are all working to sell it in droves in what they’re calling The Great Greene Heist Challenge. Impressively, author John Green even offered ten signed copies of The Fault in Our Stars to any bookstore in the U.S. that handsells at least 100 copies of The Great Green Heist in its first month of publication. No small potatoes, that. I certainly hope lots and lots of people will be attempting to read and buy this one.
- Read the story behind the story here.
Video: As of this review there is no book trailer for this book. I hereby charge a middle school somewhere in this country to make an Ocean’s 11 style trailer out of it. Make it and I will post it, absolutely. For a guide, I direct you to this Muppet version of that very thing.
Okay. Now do that with this book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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