Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading Varian Johnson’s new book, The Great Greene Heist. The book could not be more cool. Jackson Greene, the main character, is the Cary Grant of middle school. He wears his signature red tie askew and sips earl grey tea as he plots his next con.
In this caper novel, Jackson is joined by a likable crew of middle schoolers. There is the computer geek, the brainy girl disguised as a cheerleader, the eager newbie, the love interest, the bank roll and more. Johnson’s crisp writing makes each new character vibrant and impossibly cool in his or her own way. Young readers of every stripe will find a character in this book worth daydreaming about and THAT is one reason I am thankful for The Great Greene Heist.
Johnson builds a cast of diverse characters but not just for diversity’s sake. These characters are diverse in their interests, strengths, speech and yes, skin color. We need more diversity in children’s and young adult books. As a teacher I want my students to read about characters who look like them, act like them, inspire them and challenge them. Without the kind of diversity Johnson provides young readers might like a book but won’t relate to or dream of being the characters without glimpsing a familiar trait or background.
Another reason to love The Great Greene Heist is the middle school setting. This novel has a sophisticated plot at the heart. In a recent online #SharpSchu chat, Johnson said it took him years to devise the heist. It would have been easy to place this story in a high school setting with older, more sophisticated leads but Johnson chose middle school. Middle school readers will eat this story up! Johnson gives middle grade readers fully formed characters with interesting lives. What’s more, Jackson Greene and his gang have a very developed code of conduct. What 11, 12 or 13-year-old would not love to be given the respect Johnson affords his characters? In my opinion, part of the genius of The Great Greene Heist is Johnson’s empowering of his young heroes.
I plan to have several copies of The Great Greene Heist in my classroom library. This book will be hard to keep on the shelf.