This week I read a powerful middle grade novel called The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. I love this book because I think it has a little something for all types of readers! For me personally, I love historical fiction and mysteries. I enjoy books where I find myself looking up historical events to compare to what is happening in the book and books where I’m trying to solve a puzzle. The book begins with a focus on Candace Miller whose parents are going through a divorce. While the house she grew up in Atlanta is being remodeled to go up for sale, her and her mother are spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina. She is living in her dead grandmother’s house and is anything but pleased with how her summer is beginning. Candace learns her grandmother had been forced to leave Lambert years ago amid a scandal when she was the city manager. Her and her new friend Brandon come upon a mystery when they find a letter addressed to Candace’s grandmother that gives clues to the same mystery her grandmother had failed to solve many years ago.
The mystery of the letter leads Brandon and Candace on a puzzling chase for clues deep into the dark history of Lambert’s past. They learn about a forbidden love, a secret tennis game, the ugliness of racism, the power of perception, and the importance of friendship and family.
In my opinion, this book absolutely meets the criteria for culturally diverse literature described in the article by Boyd et al. (2015). This book finds a way to make incredible connections with the hateful history of segregation and racism with current issues and concerns that still exist in our society. Johnson does not sugar coat these events in the story. However, he does it in a way where he does not always include the hateful words said by the perpetrators in the book. It leaves the event open for interpretation by the reader allowing those who have experienced discrimination first hand to look in the mirror to see others who have gone through similar pain and hardship. It also gives those who have not experienced discrimination a chance to look and empathize with how the characters in the book are having to deal with these situations. The author was sensitive to the fact that middle school age children would read this book, but he still left difficult images and events because he believed it was important for these readers to be reminded and aware of the tragedies that occurred in our past. For example, his description of a doll with a noose around her neck is used to show how African Americans were intimidated and threatened by white men. Furthermore, there are so many scenes in this book where we see the fear people can have of those in power because of how those in power might perceive them. One example that struck me and made me think of conversations I’ve had with friends of mine is where Brandon’s sister is driving under the speed limit because of her fear of being pulled over by a police officer. Another example is when the assistant principal assumes Brandon and Candace are up to no good because of the color of their skin. I think these are excellent portions of the book to have difficult conversations with my students of current events of police shootings and police brutality and what we need to do as a society to help evoke change.
Not only does this book offer visual and verbal sensitivity, The Parker Inheritance is written from an authentic and accurate point of view (Boyd et al., 2015). After listening to an interview ( McCabe & Johnson, 2018) of the author, I learned how his own experience with being singled out by a police man because of his race gave him inspiration while writing the book. He goes on to discuss in the interview how people hide things about themselves to protect themselves from negative perceptions of others, particularly those in power. I would have my students listen to this interview. The character of James Parker’s would lead to an incredible classroom discussion of this type of transformation. Students could keep up with how he changes throughout the story with a graphic organizer. I think this could be a great journal topic for my students and we could explore other stories where people try to change who they really are in order to survive, fit in, or to succeed. I would start the lesson with the following question: Have you ever felt like you had to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to feel safe or respected? We could talk about ways we might change to fit in such as dressing a different way, talking in a different way, or hanging out with a crowd that is not necessarily who we want to hang out with. After exploring different books and stories, I would ask the big question of how much of yourself is worth giving up if it allows you to feel safe, successful, or to survive?
The book is accurate because it contains real life historical events (Boyd et al., 2015). This book absolutely lends itself to exploring the Civil Rights Movement and to explore modern day movements, such as, Black Lives Matter. You could also explore the topic of homophobia. I think using this book while studying Civil Rights in history class would be incredible. I would want to take my students on a field trip while reading this book to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro. This could help students read more critically about the way African Americans were treated by their white counterparts. Plus, it would give them more information on how resistant the south was to the integration of schools and they can learn about the non violent actions African Americans took to fight for their rights. I’ve been here once with a group of my students and the conversations we had about our readings when we returned were so much deeper than those I had with previous classes. The photos and videos really struck a chord in many of my students. There are also so many amazing resources available to deeper explore some of the events referenced in The Parker Inheritance. I would use this website , a project of Teaching for Change, (2017) to pair some excellent readings on topics, such as school segregation and current events involving race relations. This website offers quite a few lesson plans and also gives examples of ways young people can be involved in social movements. I also think it would be cool to tie in the secret basketball game played by North Carolina Central and Duke University. Students in my previous history classes are always curious and interested in this historical event. Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game by John Coy would be a great cluster text to use to further explore actual events that happened during this time period while reading The Parker Inheritance. Students could compare and contrast the events that happen during the secret tennis game in The Parker Inheritance with the real life story of the secret basketball game.
This book offers opportunity for deep thought on ideologies of how we treat and see people based on race, gender, ability, and sexual identity (Boyd et al., 2015). How do we perceive people? Do we tend to judge them or do we feel that we are constantly judged? How are current movements helping to fight discrimination? How can we get involved? I found a lesson on Teaching Tolerance.com where students could explore how social media is being used as a tool for social justice action. I will use this book to help encourage my students to begin exploring how they might take action in the community to help overcome hate and adversity.
Boyd B. F., Causey L. L., & Galda L. (2015). Culturally diverse literature: Enriching variety in an era of common core state standards. The Reading Teacher, 68(5), 378-387.
Coy, J. & DuBurke, R. (2015). Game changer: John McLendon and the secret game. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.
Johnson, V. (2018). The parker inheritance. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.
McCabe, S. (Interviewer) & Johnson, V. (Interviewee). (2018). Varian Johnson and the parker inheritance. Retrieved from Scholastic Reads Podcast: http://oomscholasticblog.com/podcast/varian-johnson-and-parker-inheritance
MenKart, D., Murray D. A., & View L. J. (2004). Putting the movement back into civil rights teaching. Retrieved from https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/