In mystery, Austin author exposes racism felt by generations of family

Candice has been unscrambling puzzles her entire life.

This one, though, has much higher stakes.

It starts when Candice — transplanted to small-town Lambert, S.C., after her parents separate — finds a letter in her grandmother’s attic, with the inscription “Find the path. Solve the puzzle.” The instruction is in her grandmother’s handwriting, but once Candice opens the envelope, she realizes the unsigned letter inside was written to her grandmother a decade ago.

It’s full of details about the town’s inhabitants back in the 1960s, at a time when racial tensions were still simmering in the wake of Civil Rights protests. And it promises treasure, in the form of $40 million taken from the city of Lambert to right wrongs alluded to by the mysterious correspondent.

That triggers the hunt for “The Parker Inheritance” (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, $16.99), Austin author Varian Johnson’s new middle-grade novel.

“Inheritance” infuses its “Westing Game”-inspired mystery with explorations of identity and perception, particularly race. Johnson typically showcases diverse characters, like the cast in 2014’s “The Great Greene Heist” and its sequel, “To Catch a Cheat,” but “Inheritance” marks a move to more overtly topical fiction.

“While I’ve always featured people of color in my works, I really wanted to dig deeper into what life was like for African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s,” Johnson explains via email. “But I didn’t want to set a book entirely in the past — I wanted to see how our perceptions of race change over time — and sadly, how they often stay the same. I also wanted to explore how African-Americans have been pitted against each other since the times of slavery, especially in relation to status concerning skin tone, and how that negative carry-over affects us today.”

So “Inheritance” switches between snippets of midcentury life in Lambert and the present day, when Candice finds a compatriot in her neighbor Brandon.

Quick-witted and well-read, Brandon has lived in Lambert his whole life, so he has connections with some of the older residents who remember events referenced in the letter. They also remember Candice’s grandmother, back when she was the city manager and before she had to leave her post under pressure.

The two friends occasionally find themselves targets of misperception. Researching town history in the high-school records room, Candice and Brandon — both African-American — are confronted by a white assistant principal, who is suspicious about why the pair is in the building.

“Everything was happening too fast, and all wrong,” Johnson writes, when the two are interrogated about how they got in (another teacher) and where their ID cards are (nonexistent, since they’re middle-schoolers). “Candice had seen her mother answer enough questions about her father to know how to handle people who were being rude or nosy. This was something else. Something darker.”

Such passages were inspired in part by Johnson’s own life, he notes. As teenagers, he and his twin brother were questioned by police at the airport, suspected of being drug smugglers — although the truth was that Johnson was there to pick up his brother from a leadership camp in Florida.

Yet race isn’t the only filter in “Inheritance.” Brandon, for example, is sensitive and often bullied, nervous that the books he loves might cause others to draw conclusions because they’re “girl books.”

“While there are certainly many problems in America concerning race, I think there is also a dangerous precedent concerning what it means to ‘be a man,’” Johnson explains. “So many of the ‘traditional’ ideas that we have about masculinity are steeped in negative stereotypes about how much emotion a man can show, what he can say, how he should act — and even what type of job is appropriate.

“And it begins so early — we tell boys that they can’t play with dolls; we tell them that they can’t wear pink; we tell them that they don’t need to learn how to cook. That mentality is toxic, and dangerous, and it’s something that I really wanted to explore in this book as it’s another type of misperception.”

Johnson, a founding member of the Brown Bookshelf and an oft-cited writer on diversity, lauds recent efforts to ensure books truly reflect the world.

“There’s been quite a lot of progress, but more must still be done,” he says. “As we move forward with an increased focus on diversity, I want the publishing industry to remember that there is no one African-American experience. There is a need in the world for a wide variety of books concerning people of color, and that includes literary novels, humor, mysteries, suspense — everything. True diversity is seeing marginalized peoples in all types of books.” (Ages 8-12)

Three BookPeople appearances to catch next week

A trio of young-adult authors tackle challenges from the future and the present in their new books — and each will be at BookPeople in the next week.

Austinite Carolyn Cohagan used real-life examples of religious dictates to underpin her dystopian young-adult thriller, “Time Zero,” which won the 2017 International Book Award for Young Adult Fiction and was an Indies finalist for Book of the Year. In “Zero,” protagonist Mina and her compatriots escape a future Manhattan ruled by the patriarchy. In the sequel, “Time Next” (Girls With Pens, $15.95), the group is taken in by the Unbound, a society free from the strictures Mina knows but governed by its own system. While Mina can dress less modestly and speak in a manner she’s been brought up to think of as disrespectful, there are still plenty of societal rules in Kingsboro she must learn (and an electronic Bee monitoring her movements).

Cohagan launches “Time Next” at 2 p.m. March 24. (Ages 14 and older)

National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman returns to the Scythedom in “Thunderhead” (Simon & Schuster, $18.99), the second title in his Arc of a Scythe series. In a world where most humans are effectively immortal, only Scythes are allowed to glean — or kill people permanently. Citra and Rowan return, each serving as a Scythe, but on opposite sides of the order. Citra tries to carry out her duties with honor, while vigilante Rowan (the self-dubbed Scythe Lucifer) hunts those scythes who have grown power-hungry. Shusterman will be at BookPeople at 7 p.m. Thursday. (Ages 12 and older)

Kira’s moving back to her small Texas hometown to live with her father, a recovering alcoholic — and, it turns out, some of her dad’s new friends from rehab. Repairing their relationship is only one of the tasks on tap in Farrah Penn’s debut novel, “Twelve Steps to Normal” (Jimmy Patterson/Little, Brown, $17.99), inspired in part by Penn’s own family history. Penn, who grew up in Texas but now calls Los Angeles home, will be at BookPeople at 7 p.m. Tuesday. (Ages 12 and older)

All three events are free, although you must buy a book at BookPeople in order to have it signed. Get more information at

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