It’s day one of fifth grade, and Anthony “Ant” Joplin is playing it cool. He surrenders to lots of photos and kisses from his parents but insists on walking to Gerald Elementary on his own, as befits the 10-year-old he has become.
He also wants to get there early so he can play with the deck of cards he has secreted away in his backpack. The annual Oak Grove spades tournament kicks off soon, and Ant really, really wants to win. He tried last year, but it didn’t go well (tears were involved), which is especially embarrassing since his older brother, their dad and their grandfather have all won in the past. So Ant is planning to practice hard, stay strong and stoic like his dad is always telling him to be, and uphold the Joplin men’s tradition. After all, as the warm and witty omniscient narrator observes, “bragging rights are more valuable than a packet of hot sauce at a fish fry.”
But in Varian Johnson’s winningly affecting and timely Playing the Cards You’re Dealt, Ant realizes that wanting something and trying hard to get it isn’t always enough—whether it’s winning a game, gaining approval from a parent or keeping everything the same.
Instead, in the suspenseful lead-up to the tournament, one thing after another goes awry. Ant’s spades partner, Jamal, gets grounded, and Ant’s father acts increasingly strange. He used to have a drinking problem but promised to stop, so that can’t be the reason, right? The arrival of new girl Shirley also throws Ant for a loop. Shirley is smart, won’t tolerate Jamal’s bullying and is comfortable talking about feelings. Ant is drawn to her not just because she’d be a great new spades partner but also because she’s an example of how to live life sans toxic masculinity. (He thinks she’s pretty cute, too.)
Readers will root for the good-hearted and charming Ant as he learns lessons about trust, teamwork and true strength, with some sweet hints of romance thrown in as well. They might learn a new skill, too, thanks to Johnson’s beginner-friendly explanations of the strategies—and fun!—of playing spades.