I heard about Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist from a blog post by Shannon Hale supporting diversity in children’s literature and this book in particular. (Shannon tends to have some meaningful posts about topics that go beyond writing, so check out her site.) As I explained in my own blog post on diversity, despite my skepticism of internet trends, I checked out Johnson's website and decided to pick up a copy.
In this middle grade caper novel, Johnson does an excellent job of creating a diverse, believable cast of characters including the thirteen-year-old black cunning protagonist, Jackson Greene, Gaby de la Cruz, his Puerto Rican former close friend turned maybe-not-so-unrequited-love-interest, her brother aka Jackson’s co-conspirator, a brainy white cheerleader, and an Arab with tech skills, among others. This is a book where diversity is pleasantly normal, and where the conflict is not driven by our racial differences.
The main conflict leading to the caper is that Gaby is running for student council president against a black boy, Keith Sinclair, who despises Jackson and will not stop at tampering with the election results to win. Worse, Keith’s plans for the school center on defunding the clubs that Jackson and his friends love. Even though Jackson has sworn off pranks since his last one ruined his friendship with Gaby, Jackson and Gaby’s brother know that Keith is up to something, and they decide to pull their own con to ensure that Keith loses.
Johnson doesn’t ignore racial tension, with Jackson suspecting an assumption by a secretary that Jackson is a troublemaker is based on his color. The school secretaries on several occasions confuse a child from a minority race for another child, a common error that Jackson exploits in carrying out his plan. Johnson weaves skillfully from one plot twist to another, enabling Jackson to find a way beyond tampering with the election to capturing the principal and Keith in their own plans to rig the results.
Like all capers, this story depends upon some unbelievable facts. Maybe some of these kids are just too smart, and the grownups are too stupid. Maybe the principal is too greedy and Keith is too spoiled and ruthless. Maybe an improbable sequence of events has to turn out just perfectly, and when that’s foiled, Jackson has to have anticipated an equally brilliant, improbable, alternate plan for the plot to succeed. Maybe kids don’t really mix so equally and happily with others from different races. But the story has so many positive elements-humor, cleverness, likeable characters-it makes for an entertaining read.
More importantly, one of the wonders of fiction is that the author can convey a message through a book's theme and, if he is skilled at his craft, persuade the reader to understand his viewpoint without beating anyone over the head with it. Johnson manages to tell a story with characters that model for young (and not so young) readers a world where racial diversity doesn’t dictate friendships or status. Even better, he does it without preaching or pulling the reader out of the story. For entertainment value and role modeling diversity in a fun read, I highly recommend The Great Greene Heist!