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The Parker Inheritance: Varian Johnson’s 2018 BGHB Fiction & Poetry Honor Speech

I am so very honored to be here tonight. Thank you to the Boston Globe, the Horn Book, and Simmons University for sponsoring this event. And thank you to the judges — there were so many great works to choose from, and I am humbled that The Parker Inheritance was one you decided to recognize.

I’d like to thank everyone at Scholastic, including editors Cheryl Klein and Nick Thomas; this award belongs to them as much as it belongs to me. I need to thank my agent and dear friend, Sara Crowe. She was the first person to read a full draft of the novel — and was one of the first to believe that the book could be as special as I hoped it would be. Thank you to all my friends in the industry for your love and support over the years. I don’t have time to name you all individually, but you are all in my heart. And of course I need to thank my family. To my girls, Savannah and Sydney, thank you for being the best kids that a dad could ask for.

My daughters certainly influenced me as I developed the main characters in the story — particularly Candice and Siobhan. Those characters’ love for puzzles, their devotion to those they love, and especially their stubbornness are traits that I see in my girls. (And maybe a tad too much when it comes to the stubbornness.) But it wasn’t just who my daughters are today that influenced the story. My writing was also influenced by who I wanted them to become. Or rather, how the world would view them as they blossomed into their future selves.

And the more I thought about my girls, the more I thought about myself. The kid I was at eleven — when I loved Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. as much as the characters in my book do. The kid I was at sixteen — when I was profiled by the police, just because of who I was and how I looked.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to give a presentation at my old high school. My mom decided to attend the talk with me. You know mommas — they always want to support their babies. (And yes, I’m still her baby. Even at forty-one.) Near the end of my talk, I began discussing an incident at an airport when my brother and I were teenagers — how we were identified and vilified, degraded and humiliated. But then, as I caught sight of my mother, I realized — I had never told her what happened. She had no idea what that police officer said and did to my brother and me so many years ago.

And while I was standing there on the stage, telling this story in front of an auditorium full of teens — and my mother — I started to get emotional, because I knew why I hadn’t told her.

I had believed that it was my fault.

I had believed that I must have been doing something wrong to cause that police officer to stop us. If only I hadn’t looked so angry. If only I had smiled more. If only, if only, if only…

I believed that I had been the problem — the one at fault — for so many years. And while there probably isn’t anything that my parents could have done to fix it, if I had told my mom, she would have taken me in her arms, and hugged me, and kissed my forehead, and she would have told me, “It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

So to everyone out there, please…don’t let the young people in your lives be like me. Remind them — it is not their fault that the world can be a racist, misogynistic place. Remind them that they are perfect the way they are. Remind them that they are strong and beautiful. Remind them that you are in their corner. Help them up when they fall. Cheer them on. Steer them the right way.

And please, do this in books that you write. Look for this in the books that you suggest — the books that you champion.

Remember, today’s youth are not at fault with what’s wrong with the world. They are not the problem. They are the solution.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB18.

Varian Johnson About Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson is author of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction & Poetry Honor Book The Parker Inheritance.

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