Varian Johnson's new kids’ book The Great Greene Heist has become a rallying point for a very worthy cause: increased diversity in children's literature. As writer Kate Messner explained on her blog, half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children's books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don't see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.
Messner concluded that the best way to show publishers that there's an audience for diversity was to push a book with a diverse cast onto the best-seller list—and she suggested focusing on The Great Greene Heist, "because it’s incredibly well written, a page turner of a read, and full of diverse, complicated characters." Other independent bookstores and authors have taken up the challenge, offering prizes and incentives, creating what is essentially a grass-roots marketing effort acknowledging that not all readers, and not all heroes, have to look the same.
Is the book any good, though? By which I mean, is it funny, thoughtful, compelling, imaginative, witty, well-written—all the things that you find in great children's literature, or, for that matter, in great literature for grown-ups? Well, there are certainly good things about it. The plot, about crisscrossing efforts to steal a middle-school election, bounces along with pleasant if not entirely unpredictable twists, and the prose does its job well enough: "Now wasn't a time to be normal. Now was a time to be infamous" is a pretty great rallying cry.