Varian Johnson on the #GreatGreeneChallenge

Guest Blogger  //  May 5, 2014

Varian Johnson on the #GreatGreeneChallenge

UPDATE: Publishers Weekly has covered the #greatgreenechallenge, too!

Here's an exciting social media tale: fans of Varian Johnson's forthcoming title, The Great Greene Heist, have started a movement. The author stopped by to fill us in. Thanks, Varian!


I remember the day clearly. It was the summer of 2007. After stepping out of a viewing of Ocean’s Thirteen, I went back home, sat at my computer, and typed two words: Jackson Greene.

That’s all I had for a long time—Jackson’s name, and the fact that I wanted to write a heist book. I worked hard to figure out how to tell the story. It took many repeated readings of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin—a master class in hiding plot clues in plain sight, as well as omniscient point of view—before it came together for me as a writer.… not to mention multiple viewings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (only the best Star Trek movie ever). Once the plot was in place, I had a great time writing the book, mostly because it had characters that I really liked—people who made me laugh, whom I would have wanted to hang out with in middle school.

I knew I wanted a story with swagger and sophistication. But more specifically, I wanted to show people of color with swagger and sophistication. So as I crafted Jackson’s crew for the heist—Gang Greene—I tried to reflect the diversity I saw in most of the middle and high schools I visited, and to celebrate it in a fun way that showcased the characters’ differences without being explicitly about those differences.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about diversity in children’s literature, and thanks to many friends, my book, The Great Greene Heist, has become part of the conversation. In fact, some of my fellow authors have started a movement to get attention for books about smart, funny, everyday kids who happen to be racially diverse. Author and former teacher Kate Messner issued a challenge to readers, stating: “Speaking up is one great way to ask for change. But buying books may be an even better way.” She encouraged everyone to purchase a copy of The Great Greene Heist with the idea that enough pre-sales could make it a bestseller when it comes out on May 27. That would send a message that diversity in books matters and diverse books can succeed in big ways—a truth further proved by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign this last week.

Many wonderful bookstores, including Eight Cousins, Inc. and Odyssey Bookshop, got involved, and then author Shannon Hale upped the stakes, challenging other independent bookstores to join into the contest. John Green followed with a generous offer to donate signed copies of The Fault in Our Stars to any bookstore that sold more than 100 copies of The Great Greene Heist in the first month. And many other authors, librarians, bookstores and educators have joined in as well, offering giveaways, tweeting and posting their support of the book.

Everyone’s efforts have come together under the title the Great Greene Challenge (#greatgreenechallenge), and you can read more about it here. It's all happened very, very fast, and been very, very humbling. I’m grateful for every reader and every bookstore that takes up the challenge. And I hope everyone enjoys the book when it debuts on May 27.