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2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Book: The Parker Inheritance

Parker Inheritance

2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Book: The Parker Inheritance

Written by Varian Johnson

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018

ISBN #978-0-545-94617-9

Grades 3 and up


Book Review

Winner of a 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Honor, The Parker Inheritance is a part historical fiction novel, part puzzle mystery, full of masterful plot twists and clever riddles. Set in three distinct and alternating time periods, Author Varian Johnson weaves a mystery across time, place, and generations that captivates with every chapter. Starting in 1914, the Washington family faces the social turbulence leading up to Civil Rights Movement. In 2007, Lambert city manager Abigail Caldwell makes the fateful decision to dig up the Enoch Washington Memorial Tennis Courts, convinced that a treasure lies buried beneath them. And in the present time, Abigail’s granddaughter, twelve-year old Candice Miller, misses her life in Atlanta, Georgia and believes she’ll spend the summer lonely and bored. Soon, though, she discovers a box labeled “For Candice,” left by her grandmother who passed away two years earlier. In the box is a mysterious letter and clues to an immense fortune hidden somewhere in Lambert. Candice knows her grandmother had attempted to solve the mystery once before, resulting in public disgrace. Enlisting the help of her neighbor Brandon, she embarks on a research adventure through the town’s shameful history, a secret tennis exhibition, a family’s fight against social injustice, and an enigmatic benefactor’s attempts to right the wrongs of the past. The tweens use their penchant for puzzles, knowledge of literature, and research skills to decipher the clues. Perhaps, too, Candice can salvage her grandmother’s good name in the process. An author’s note answers questions for readers wanting to know more about the historical and social settings, school segregation, and the issues of race and discrimination at play in the novel. An ideal text to use in social studies and humanities units, and an enthralling independent read for puzzle and mystery fans, The Parker Inheritance is a rewarding addition to your classroom bookshelf.


Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Grades 3 and up

  • Puzzle Mysteries and Other Mystery Subgenres. What makes a puzzle mystery different from other types of mysteries? Guide students to collectively define this subgenre as a mystery in which a puzzle must be solved to answer the unknown question (e.g., “Whodunnit?” or in this case, “Where did James Parker hide his fortune?”). The author provides readers with the clues to solving the puzzle along with the characters in the book. If you’re a careful enough reader, you just might solve the puzzle before the characters do. Other examples of puzzle mysteries include The Gallery, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, The Calder Game, by Blue Balliett, and the Newbery Award winning The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, which is the novel that is mentioned throughout The Parker Inheritance and was a source of inspiration for Varian Johnson. Introduce your students to the various subgenres of mystery, from caper to detective fiction to true crime. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather examples of each mystery subgenre to share with your students. Have them compare and contrast the different subgenres, noting their unique characteristics. You may want to set up book clubs, each reading different subgenre of mystery. Then, invite students to select one of the mystery subgenres and try writing their own mystery in that vein.
  • Word Play. Recognizing word play is another key to solving the puzzle of the location the inheritance. Introduce students to the different ways that one can engage in word play, from puns to spoonerisms to double entendres. Help students identify the word play in Parker’s letter and  discuss the examples they’ve found. How did Parker play with the words? What effect does that word play have on the overall meaning of the letter and the events of the novel? Take students on a community walk around the school or neighborhood to jot down some of the text they see every day (e.g., from store signs, movie posters, newspaper stands, street signs, etc.). Then challenge them to play with the words from those texts in as many ways as possible, based on the different kinds of word play you learned about together. Extend this playful challenge to texts they have read in class.
  • Justice versus Vengeance. Both Siobhan and Leanne Washington make a clear distinction between what it means to seek justice and what it means to seek vengeance. The difference between the two concepts is a significant force in the novel, compelling characters to act in certain ways at different times in the story. What is the difference between the two? What does pursuing one versus the other entail? What are the likely outcomes of each? Guide students to identify examples of justice and vengeance in The Parker Inheritance, then explore these themes in other stories, movies, television shows, as well as the news and world events.
  • Community Service and Activism. There are many forms of community service and activism described in The Parker Inheritance, from the neighborly acts between Candice’s and Brandon’s families to the Carmel Missionary Circle’s  fundraising bake sale for Briggs v. Elliott to James Parker’s various (though sometimes misguided) efforts to honor the city of Lambert’s past. All are efforts to make a positive change at the local level. Have students identify all the examples of service and activism in the book, analyzing the goals, underlying philosophies, and values of each. How effective is each effort? What are the pros and cons of pursuing such lines of service and activism? After examining these examples, encourage students to identify ways they can participate in social justice, community service, and activism in their neighborhoods, towns, and counties, and explore ways they can actually pursue them.
  • Mathematics and Creative, Critical Thinking. Mathematics plays a big part in the novel, and an even more significant part in solving the mystery of James Parker’s inheritance. Have students identify the ways in which mathematics shapes the characters’ thinking and actions, as well as the ways in which the plot unfolds. Watch this video of Varian Johnson explaining the relationship between math and creative writing/thinking. Gather a text set of examples of ways in which mathematics spurs creativity, such as Becoming Bach; Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science; Counting on Katherine; and Nothing Stopped Sophie. Challenge students to find ways to use math in their own lives to engage in creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Varian Johnson Author Study. Gather a collection of Varian Johnson’s work and biographical information, including interviews and videos. As a class, read through the novels he wrote, noting similarities and differences across the books’ formats and styles. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Based on students’ inquiries, observations, and analyses, compile a list of lessons about writing gained from this study and invite your students to try out some of the techniques you have discussed in their own work. See the websites and titles listed below as a starting point for gathering information.
  • Coretta Scott King Award. Learn more about the Coretta Scott King Award at the ALA website. Gather a collection of author award winners and illustrator award winners from past years and invite children to browse them and make observations. Engage older students in a discussion of the benefits of recognizing diversity in children’s books (see the We Need Diverse books website for resources). Have students review the criteria for the Coretta Scott King Award and apply them to other children’s and young adult book written You can find Classroom Bookshelf entries on the past Author and Illustrator Award winners.

Grades 6 and up

  • Playing with Plot Structure. The novel begins in 2007, with Candice’s grandmother making her final move to find the Parker inheritance. From there, it fast forwards to present day to tell us the events of Candice’s summer in Lambert. Then, it flashes back almost 100 years before to chronicle the history of the Washington family. The novel then alternates between present day and the 1950s before returning to 2007 in the last chapter to wrap up loose ends and provide a sense of closure. Discuss the use of non-linear time structure as a narrative frame with your students. Share other examples of stories that are also structured in this way, such as Holes, by Louis Sachar. Using large sheets of butcher block paper or a collaborative digital tool like Google docs, have students create chronological timelines for each of the three storylines, drawing connections among them when events converge. Have students discuss the use of non-linear plot structure with a writer’s eye. Why would an author use it to frame a story, instead of just telling the story chronologically? What does a nonlinear frame reveal about the characters in the book? After discussing and taking notes on students’ analyses, invite students to try using this type of structure in any of their narrative writing, whether personal narrative or fiction. You might find it easiest to scaffold their attempt at nonlinear plot structure by focusing only on two storylines at a time, rather than three.
  • Intertextuality and Literary Allusions. The characters in this novel often refer to various novels they’ve read, naming them by title at times. These other novels often illuminate the characters’ discussions and understandings of the events around them, with one novel in particular, Ellen Raskin’s 1979 Newbery Award winning novel The Westing Game, providing an essential key to crack the puzzle. Why might an author include both literary allusions and specific, detailed references like this? What should a reader know in order to understand them? Have students identify some of these allusions and references—or what they think are allusions—in The Parker Inheritance. Read some excerpts from the primary sources, and then discuss how those allusions and references relate to what’s happening in the novel. For students who are brand new to the concept of literary allusions and references, you might want to first model these activities with a book like Previously (see Further Explorations section below), which provides a variety of allusions to a series of fairy tales, or Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, by Avi, which hides clues to a mystery in four other children’s books. As an extension, you might want to share When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, a Newbery Award winning children’s novel that specifically references and draws inspiration from yet another Newbery winner, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.
  • Sports and Race. By simply turning on the television, students may think that anyone can play competitive sports and that anyone skilled enough can win an athletic competition. As The Parker Inheritance shows, however, that this wasn’t the case, particularly when it came to the athlete’s race. Watch the video “Looking at Sports and Race in America”. If your school or local library subscribes to Kanopy, watch “Race, Power, and American Sports” via your library’s streaming  site as well. Discuss as a class the barriers that have been broken by athletes of color, as well as the barriers that remain for them today. Discuss, too, any current controversies in sports that are related to race, such as Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem or the code violations that Serena Williams received during the 2018 U.S. Open. How does race play into the responses that the general public has to those controversies? Support complex discussions with a variety of sports based texts that explore discrimination in sports, such as The Girl Who Ran, Growing Up Pedro, Babe Conquers the World, The Kid from Diamond Street, Testing the Ice, and The William Hoy Story.
  • The History of School Segregation and Integration. Use this text as way to introduce the history of school segregation and integration. Begin by finding out what students already know about the topic and brainstorming class questions to pursue to further their understanding. With the help of a school or local librarian, gather a multimodal, multigenre set of texts that explore these topics. Include picture books, such as The First Step, Through My Eyes, The Story of Ruby Bridges, and Separate is Never Equal. Include websites, such as The Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education on PBS, and blogs, such as “Before Brown vs. Board of Education on NPR. Include videos, such as Brown v. Board of Education on, and primary sources located on Justia U.S. Supreme Court. Don’t forget to also include the author’s note at the end of The Parker Inheritance. Engage students in questions about school segregation today: Although federal law prohibits school segregation, how might students still be segregated today? What contemporary efforts are being made to address these issues? What recommendations and solutions would they offer their local school boards? Encourage students to share these recommendations with their school leaders via letter, news articles, presentations at school board meetings, etc. Remember, too, that Siobhan Washington complicates the issue by saying that despite segregation, Perkins students felt safety and pride at their school. How would Siobahn’s statement factor into your class discussion? As an extension, encourage students to research the history of segregation and integration in your school district.
  • Civil Rights Past and Present. Throughout the novel, and especially through the shifting time period settings, Johnson draws parallels between the racial prejudice and discrimination of the 20th and 21st centuries. Engage students in explorations of these parallels. Similar to the teaching idea above, begin by finding out what students already know and are wondering about the Civil Rights Movement. What evidence do they see in their lives and the media today that show how racial prejudice and discrimination still exist? What evidence can they point to that it doesn’t? Since this topic is so broad and complex, usually revisited across different grade levels, provide a multi-genre, multimodal text set of picture books, novels, nonfiction texts, primary source material, websites, videos, podcasts, and other resources to highlight the diverse experiences, events, and perspectives around the Civil Right Movement and present-day movements against racial injustice. Enlist the help of your school or local librarian to curate this text set. Again, don’t forget to use Johnson’s author’s note at the end of The Parker Inheritance to support this exploration, as well as some of the resources listed below in Further Explorations.


Further Explorations

Online resources

Varian Johnson’s website


Varian Johnson interviews


Varian Johnson videos


American Civil Liberties Union Site


The Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Georgia


“In Pursuit of Equality” from “Separate is Never Equal: Brown v. Board of Education” –  Smithsonian Institution


Brown v. Board of Education Timeline – Teaching Tolerance


“Beyond Brown” – PBS


“Looking at Sports and Race in America” video – The New Yorker




Puzzle Mysteries

Avi. (1981). Who stole the Wizard of Oz? New York: Dell Yearling.

Balliett, B. (2004). Chasing Vermeer. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.

Balliett, B. (2007). The Wright 3. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Apple Signature/Scholastic.

Balliett, B. (2008). The Calder game. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.

Balliett, B. (2015). Pieces and players. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.

Broach, E. (2008). Masterpiece. Ill. by K. Murphy. New York: Holt.

Fitzgerald, L. M. (2015). Under the egg. New York: Dial.

Fitzgerald, L. M. (2016). The gallery. New York: Dial. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Konigsburg, E. L. (2007/1970). From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum.

Raskin, E. (2003/1978). The Westing game. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers.

Raskin, E. (2011/1971). The mysterious disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel). New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers.

Raskin, E. (2011/1975). The tattooed potato and other clues. New York: Puffin Books.


Books about School Segregation

Bridges, R. (1999). Through my eyes. New York: Scholastic.

Coles, R. (1995). The story of Ruby Bridges. Ill. by G. Ford. New York: Scholastic.

Goodman, S. E. (2016). The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial. Ill. by B. Collier. New York: Bloomsbury. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Morrison, T. (2005). Remember: The journey to school integration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rappaport, D. (2005). The school is not white: A true story of the Civil Rights Movement. Ill. by C. James. New York: Hyperion.

Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal. New York: Abrams Books for Children. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.