Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Scholastic. Oct. 2021. 320p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781338348538.
Gr 4-6–Anthony “Ant” Joplin is just starting fifth grade. This year, he really wants to impress his dad by winning a local spades tournament. Last year he and his partner Jamal lost, and he has been teased about it ever since. On the first day of school, Ant and Jamal meet new student, Shirley, who is able to beat Ant and Jamal handily. This sets up a rivalry between Jamal and Shirley for Ant’s friendship, as well as a burgeoning crush for Ant. Meanwhile, Ant’s dad is struggling with alcoholism and a gambling addiction. Ant decides that winning the tournament with his dad watching will solve everything. Trash talk, strategy, and the rules of spades are deftly interwoven into the narrative so the uninitiated can understand how the game works. The self-aware narrator serves to explain Ant’s decisions while making clear that Ant may have unrealistic expectations of the consequences of winning the tournament. Ant grows as a character; he learns what real friendship looks like, and there are nice moments where the characters tackle toxic masculinity in kid-appropriate ways. For example, Ant receives support from adults in choosing a girl for his spades partner even though he is teased, Ant’s older brother is interested in things other than sports and shrugs off negativity from his peers about his hobbies, and Ant sees the value in talking about his family situation with people who care about him. The characters are well developed, and a difficult story is told with tenderness and humor. Most primary characters are Black.
VERDICT A first-rate contemporary realistic fiction title that centers a Black boy and his community, and offers expansive notions of masculinity.

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