In 1955, a Black family passes for white and moves to a “Whites Only” town in the suburbs. Caught between two worlds, a teen boy puts his family at risk as he uncovers racist secrets about his suburb. A new social justice thriller from the acclaimed author of This Is My America!

Calvin knows how to pass for white. He's done it plenty of times before. For his friends in Chicago, when they wanted food but weren't allowed in a restaurant. For work, when he and his dad would travel for the Green Book.

This is different.

After a tragedy in Chicago forces the family to flee, they resettle in an idyllic all-white suburban town in search of a better life. Calvin's father wants everyone to embrace their new white lifestyles, but it's easier said than done. Hiding your true self is exhausting -- which leads Calvin across town where he can make friends who know all of him...and spend more time with his new crush, Lily. But when Calvin starts unraveling dark secrets about the white town and its inhabitants, passing starts to feel even more suffocating--and dangerous--than he could have imagined. 

Expertly weaving together real historical events with important reflections on being Black in America, acclaimed author Kim Johnson powerfully connects readers to the experience of being forced to live a life-threatening lie or embrace an equally deadly truth.
Kim Johnson held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen and in college, and is now an author and educator. Kim's bestselling novel, This Is My America, won numerous accolades, including the Pacific Northwest Book Award and Malka Penn Human Rights Award for Children's Literature. Her second novel, Invisible Son, is another thriller ripped from the headlines. Both novels were selected as NPR Best Books. The Color of a Lie is her first historical thriller.

She holds degrees from the University of Oregon, University of Maryland, College Park, and an MFA from Oregon State University Cascades. She lives with her family in the Washington DC area. Find her at KCJOHNSONWRITES.COM and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kcjohnsonwrites. View titles by Kim Johnson
Chapter 1

Nerves droned inside me like a swarm of angry bees. I hated how my dad driving through Pennsylvania’s rolling hills and endless farmland left me feeling exposed. I wanted to go back to Chicago, where I could feel insignificant and important all at once, standing downtown amid the chaos of five o’clock. Not even riding in my dad’s new turquoise Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop could purge the mounting sense of dread. Because I couldn’t fool myself: this wasn’t just a road trip—­it was a final destination. A promise of a brand-­new life I never wanted.

“Ray’ll be looking for me.” I broke my silent protest when the Bucks County sign came into view.

Mom leaned across the back seat to touch my knee. “You can call him when we’re settled.”

“What if he asks when I’ll be home?”

“Calvin,” Dad said.

“He’s my best friend.”

“You can write letters,” Mom said. “Aunt Vera will get them to him.”

I swallowed hard. An in-­between messenger like my nosy Aunt Vera could never be a replacement for friendship, for missing my junior year.

“Can he visit?” I gritted my teeth because I knew the answer. I just wanted to make my dad say it.

“You know that’s not possible.” Dad adjusted the rearview mirror so his whiskey-­colored eyes could bore into mine. They were always striking against my father’s pale skin, which turned a fawn color under the sun.

“What about Robert?” I said my older brother’s name.

“Robert’s made his choices.”

“You’ll like Levit­town,” Mom said. “The neighborhood’s beautiful. You’ll have your own yard. Maybe Dad will finally let you get a dog.”

“Two dogs.” Dad flicked the words, gripping the steering wheel. “There’ll be room.”

I’d only accepted moving to Levit­town, Pennsylvania, because Robert was out in a township just eleven miles away. It was only after I said yes that Dad revealed his grand plan. Robert couldn’t come with us, because Robert was a Red. And Charlotte was gone forever. It was as if my twin siblings had never existed, as if I, too, had ceased to exist. Only to emerge to a new life built on a white lie.



We turned off the highway, zigzagging through routes carefully laid out on the map. I tugged at my clothes, itchy from being new, wondering if the real estate agent would see through this charade. Mom in her Sunday best, a flower-­print dress, white gloves, a designer scarf on her head, and cat-­eye sunglasses. Dad’s pressed white shirt with black slacks and a tan fedora.

The street was sickly quiet. I already missed the noises of city life. The girls in my neighborhood. Nancy. Especially Nancy.

“Which one’s ours?” I took a hard gulp.

“That one.” Dad puffed out his chest and pointed to a home close to the end of the block with a for sale sign lying flat on the ground. He pulled up to the driveway and shut off the engine.

“It’s everything the pictures promised.” Mom laced her fingers together.

“What’d I tell you!” Dad jumped out of the car, flinging his arms wildly.

The neighborhood was just like the Levitt & Sons ads: affordable assembly-­line-­made homes that, from above, looked like perfectly carved-­out squares for blocks. To people in Levit­town, this was the American dream. But to me, this was a delusion. I knew that one day this place would pop.

I stepped out, shoving my hands in my pockets, looking left to right. Row after row of Cape Cod–­style homes for as far as I could see, with identical-­sized backyards. No fences to mark their territory, just invisible lines of trust to live by.

Mom got out last. She touched the scarf on her head, tightened the bottom, and then tucked in her flax-­colored hair. As their hands met, Dad and Mom exchanged a meaningful smile. I kept my mouth tightly shut. Not a chance I’d give them any satisfaction. I hated it. And at that moment I hated them.

“There he is.” Dad pointed to the real estate agent who’d brokered the deal. He was tall and slender with light, sandy-­colored hair. The tip of his nose was red, like he easily burned.

“Welcome.” Mr. Vernon met my dad halfway down the drive­way and shook his hand. “You’re gonna love it here.”

“It’s so quiet.” Mom tentatively stepped forward.

“Nothing like Chicago, I bet,” Mr. Vernon said. “Heard it went to hell after people moved in like cockroaches. Homes out here are the good life for nice families like you. Real safe.”

Mom clutched her scarf and looked away.

“Quiet is good.” Dad kept a smile.

“You must be Ann,” Mr. Vernon said.

My eyes went wide. She was always quick to correct someone because Agnes was a family name. But as I swept my gaze over my parents, I realized this was another white lie they’d keep up.

“Yes.” Mom tugged her glove tight before shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Calvin.” Mr. Vernon slapped his hand on my back. My shoulders relaxed with relief—­my name would stay the same. “I hear you might be looking for work. I need someone part-­time. Turn in an application, and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Thank you, sir.” I shook his hand limply. I hadn’t even unpacked yet, and my dad was already planning my future.

Mr. Vernon led us on a tour of the expansive three-­bedroom, two-­bathroom home. Compared to our modest two-­bedroom apartment in Chicago—­where the couch had been my bed for so many years—­this place was massive. The ads in the paper had made it seem too good to be true, like propaganda from World War II. But it was real: dishwasher, fridge, stove. And what caught my mother’s eye: the brand-­new washing machine. No more hand-­washing clothes.

“Always snags the attention of the missus.” Mr. Vernon chuckled. “Nice setup for a housewife, isn’t it?”

Mom coughed and gave Dad an uncomfortable gaze.

When men had left for the war and jobs had opened up for women, that’s when Mom got work downtown. She’d kept working when Dad came home. I let out a satisfied smile because I wasn’t the only one caught by surprise at things changing.

Cold white walls greeted us along the halls. From all the ads, they were meant to stay that way. I wanted to see if Mom was thinking the same thing, but she was already looking at her new bedroom.

As I passed the first room, I thought of Robert. How he would have claimed the farthest room from my parents’. Even though Robert was disowned, I chose the other bedroom, sight unseen.

“It’s beautiful.” Mom floated through the house. “This is all updated. William, look.” The Southern drawl she’d picked up as a girl in Alabama snuck out. Dad gave Mom a quick glance. She patted her dress down and attempted to calm her excitement.

“It’s nice, Mom.” I forced an obligatory smile.

I opened the back door, irritated that I could feel my heart flutter at having a yard for the first time.

“You’ll be happy here. Just give it time.” Mom squeezed my shoulders from behind.

Mr. Vernon pointed at the row of houses all connected to perfectly manicured grass. I approached the yard between our house and the neighbor’s. Sprouts of grass grew in oddly shaped patches.

“What happened here?” I kicked at the ground with my shoe.

“Fire.” Something flitted between Mr. Vernon and my dad.

“What about the neighbors? Friendly?” Mom’s voice quavered. Her lifelong friends and her sister, Vera, now lived hundreds of miles away. Mom might be trying to bury her feelings, but I could hear the sadness there.

“Very. Lots of high schoolers on this block as well. The Freemens are solid.” Mr. Vernon pointed to our back neighbor, who shared our mishmash spots of new grass. “You have to keep up your lawn. I’ve got some names you can use. Colored help is fine as long as they leave town before sundown.”

“I won’t need—­” Mom stopped as Dad steered Mr. Vernon to the side of the house.

We both knew Mom was about to say she wouldn’t need help. And the last thing we wanted to hear about was sundown laws. I gritted my teeth because Dad had forgotten to mention that, too.

When the agent finally left, Mom unwrapped her scarf from her head, peeled her gloves off, and slapped them together. I’d been praying she’d wake up and eventually put her foot down, but all I saw was relief running across her face. We’d finished the first test.

“We can’t possibly stay here.” I stepped closer to my mom.

“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.” Mom looked to Dad.

“We gonna fit in just fine, Calvin,” Dad said. Two white boys rode their bikes down the street. “You’ll make friends—­see, they’re probably your age.”

Mom recovered, stepping closer. “He’s right. They probably go to Heritage High.”

“What if someone finds out you lied? The bank could easily look into your GI records.”

“Enough,” Dad said. “They won’t find out.”

Shame crept through my body—­he was willing to risk our lives, again.

“We don’t know how to be like them. Ain’t gonna fit in here.” I dug my foot into the grass, kicking up dirt.

“Watch your tongue. They hear you talking like that, you’ll have more to worry about than just the bank.”

Another white neighbor passed the house, walking their dog and waving. I gritted my teeth as we flashed simultaneous fake smiles.

“I thought you said I could be me,” I whispered, my eyes beginning to sting. “That as long as I didn’t say anything, it wasn’t a lie.”

“You can be you,” Dad said. “Just watch how you talk and who you friendly with.”

I almost unraveled right then, knowing he meant no Black friends. I flung a betrayed look to Mom. This fresh start wouldn’t just be about starting a new life. It’d be about playing white.

About

In 1955, a Black family passes for white and moves to a “Whites Only” town in the suburbs. Caught between two worlds, a teen boy puts his family at risk as he uncovers racist secrets about his suburb. A new social justice thriller from the acclaimed author of This Is My America!

Calvin knows how to pass for white. He's done it plenty of times before. For his friends in Chicago, when they wanted food but weren't allowed in a restaurant. For work, when he and his dad would travel for the Green Book.

This is different.

After a tragedy in Chicago forces the family to flee, they resettle in an idyllic all-white suburban town in search of a better life. Calvin's father wants everyone to embrace their new white lifestyles, but it's easier said than done. Hiding your true self is exhausting -- which leads Calvin across town where he can make friends who know all of him...and spend more time with his new crush, Lily. But when Calvin starts unraveling dark secrets about the white town and its inhabitants, passing starts to feel even more suffocating--and dangerous--than he could have imagined. 

Expertly weaving together real historical events with important reflections on being Black in America, acclaimed author Kim Johnson powerfully connects readers to the experience of being forced to live a life-threatening lie or embrace an equally deadly truth.

Author

Kim Johnson held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen and in college, and is now an author and educator. Kim's bestselling novel, This Is My America, won numerous accolades, including the Pacific Northwest Book Award and Malka Penn Human Rights Award for Children's Literature. Her second novel, Invisible Son, is another thriller ripped from the headlines. Both novels were selected as NPR Best Books. The Color of a Lie is her first historical thriller.

She holds degrees from the University of Oregon, University of Maryland, College Park, and an MFA from Oregon State University Cascades. She lives with her family in the Washington DC area. Find her at KCJOHNSONWRITES.COM and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kcjohnsonwrites. View titles by Kim Johnson

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Nerves droned inside me like a swarm of angry bees. I hated how my dad driving through Pennsylvania’s rolling hills and endless farmland left me feeling exposed. I wanted to go back to Chicago, where I could feel insignificant and important all at once, standing downtown amid the chaos of five o’clock. Not even riding in my dad’s new turquoise Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop could purge the mounting sense of dread. Because I couldn’t fool myself: this wasn’t just a road trip—­it was a final destination. A promise of a brand-­new life I never wanted.

“Ray’ll be looking for me.” I broke my silent protest when the Bucks County sign came into view.

Mom leaned across the back seat to touch my knee. “You can call him when we’re settled.”

“What if he asks when I’ll be home?”

“Calvin,” Dad said.

“He’s my best friend.”

“You can write letters,” Mom said. “Aunt Vera will get them to him.”

I swallowed hard. An in-­between messenger like my nosy Aunt Vera could never be a replacement for friendship, for missing my junior year.

“Can he visit?” I gritted my teeth because I knew the answer. I just wanted to make my dad say it.

“You know that’s not possible.” Dad adjusted the rearview mirror so his whiskey-­colored eyes could bore into mine. They were always striking against my father’s pale skin, which turned a fawn color under the sun.

“What about Robert?” I said my older brother’s name.

“Robert’s made his choices.”

“You’ll like Levit­town,” Mom said. “The neighborhood’s beautiful. You’ll have your own yard. Maybe Dad will finally let you get a dog.”

“Two dogs.” Dad flicked the words, gripping the steering wheel. “There’ll be room.”

I’d only accepted moving to Levit­town, Pennsylvania, because Robert was out in a township just eleven miles away. It was only after I said yes that Dad revealed his grand plan. Robert couldn’t come with us, because Robert was a Red. And Charlotte was gone forever. It was as if my twin siblings had never existed, as if I, too, had ceased to exist. Only to emerge to a new life built on a white lie.



We turned off the highway, zigzagging through routes carefully laid out on the map. I tugged at my clothes, itchy from being new, wondering if the real estate agent would see through this charade. Mom in her Sunday best, a flower-­print dress, white gloves, a designer scarf on her head, and cat-­eye sunglasses. Dad’s pressed white shirt with black slacks and a tan fedora.

The street was sickly quiet. I already missed the noises of city life. The girls in my neighborhood. Nancy. Especially Nancy.

“Which one’s ours?” I took a hard gulp.

“That one.” Dad puffed out his chest and pointed to a home close to the end of the block with a for sale sign lying flat on the ground. He pulled up to the driveway and shut off the engine.

“It’s everything the pictures promised.” Mom laced her fingers together.

“What’d I tell you!” Dad jumped out of the car, flinging his arms wildly.

The neighborhood was just like the Levitt & Sons ads: affordable assembly-­line-­made homes that, from above, looked like perfectly carved-­out squares for blocks. To people in Levit­town, this was the American dream. But to me, this was a delusion. I knew that one day this place would pop.

I stepped out, shoving my hands in my pockets, looking left to right. Row after row of Cape Cod–­style homes for as far as I could see, with identical-­sized backyards. No fences to mark their territory, just invisible lines of trust to live by.

Mom got out last. She touched the scarf on her head, tightened the bottom, and then tucked in her flax-­colored hair. As their hands met, Dad and Mom exchanged a meaningful smile. I kept my mouth tightly shut. Not a chance I’d give them any satisfaction. I hated it. And at that moment I hated them.

“There he is.” Dad pointed to the real estate agent who’d brokered the deal. He was tall and slender with light, sandy-­colored hair. The tip of his nose was red, like he easily burned.

“Welcome.” Mr. Vernon met my dad halfway down the drive­way and shook his hand. “You’re gonna love it here.”

“It’s so quiet.” Mom tentatively stepped forward.

“Nothing like Chicago, I bet,” Mr. Vernon said. “Heard it went to hell after people moved in like cockroaches. Homes out here are the good life for nice families like you. Real safe.”

Mom clutched her scarf and looked away.

“Quiet is good.” Dad kept a smile.

“You must be Ann,” Mr. Vernon said.

My eyes went wide. She was always quick to correct someone because Agnes was a family name. But as I swept my gaze over my parents, I realized this was another white lie they’d keep up.

“Yes.” Mom tugged her glove tight before shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Calvin.” Mr. Vernon slapped his hand on my back. My shoulders relaxed with relief—­my name would stay the same. “I hear you might be looking for work. I need someone part-­time. Turn in an application, and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Thank you, sir.” I shook his hand limply. I hadn’t even unpacked yet, and my dad was already planning my future.

Mr. Vernon led us on a tour of the expansive three-­bedroom, two-­bathroom home. Compared to our modest two-­bedroom apartment in Chicago—­where the couch had been my bed for so many years—­this place was massive. The ads in the paper had made it seem too good to be true, like propaganda from World War II. But it was real: dishwasher, fridge, stove. And what caught my mother’s eye: the brand-­new washing machine. No more hand-­washing clothes.

“Always snags the attention of the missus.” Mr. Vernon chuckled. “Nice setup for a housewife, isn’t it?”

Mom coughed and gave Dad an uncomfortable gaze.

When men had left for the war and jobs had opened up for women, that’s when Mom got work downtown. She’d kept working when Dad came home. I let out a satisfied smile because I wasn’t the only one caught by surprise at things changing.

Cold white walls greeted us along the halls. From all the ads, they were meant to stay that way. I wanted to see if Mom was thinking the same thing, but she was already looking at her new bedroom.

As I passed the first room, I thought of Robert. How he would have claimed the farthest room from my parents’. Even though Robert was disowned, I chose the other bedroom, sight unseen.

“It’s beautiful.” Mom floated through the house. “This is all updated. William, look.” The Southern drawl she’d picked up as a girl in Alabama snuck out. Dad gave Mom a quick glance. She patted her dress down and attempted to calm her excitement.

“It’s nice, Mom.” I forced an obligatory smile.

I opened the back door, irritated that I could feel my heart flutter at having a yard for the first time.

“You’ll be happy here. Just give it time.” Mom squeezed my shoulders from behind.

Mr. Vernon pointed at the row of houses all connected to perfectly manicured grass. I approached the yard between our house and the neighbor’s. Sprouts of grass grew in oddly shaped patches.

“What happened here?” I kicked at the ground with my shoe.

“Fire.” Something flitted between Mr. Vernon and my dad.

“What about the neighbors? Friendly?” Mom’s voice quavered. Her lifelong friends and her sister, Vera, now lived hundreds of miles away. Mom might be trying to bury her feelings, but I could hear the sadness there.

“Very. Lots of high schoolers on this block as well. The Freemens are solid.” Mr. Vernon pointed to our back neighbor, who shared our mishmash spots of new grass. “You have to keep up your lawn. I’ve got some names you can use. Colored help is fine as long as they leave town before sundown.”

“I won’t need—­” Mom stopped as Dad steered Mr. Vernon to the side of the house.

We both knew Mom was about to say she wouldn’t need help. And the last thing we wanted to hear about was sundown laws. I gritted my teeth because Dad had forgotten to mention that, too.

When the agent finally left, Mom unwrapped her scarf from her head, peeled her gloves off, and slapped them together. I’d been praying she’d wake up and eventually put her foot down, but all I saw was relief running across her face. We’d finished the first test.

“We can’t possibly stay here.” I stepped closer to my mom.

“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.” Mom looked to Dad.

“We gonna fit in just fine, Calvin,” Dad said. Two white boys rode their bikes down the street. “You’ll make friends—­see, they’re probably your age.”

Mom recovered, stepping closer. “He’s right. They probably go to Heritage High.”

“What if someone finds out you lied? The bank could easily look into your GI records.”

“Enough,” Dad said. “They won’t find out.”

Shame crept through my body—­he was willing to risk our lives, again.

“We don’t know how to be like them. Ain’t gonna fit in here.” I dug my foot into the grass, kicking up dirt.

“Watch your tongue. They hear you talking like that, you’ll have more to worry about than just the bank.”

Another white neighbor passed the house, walking their dog and waving. I gritted my teeth as we flashed simultaneous fake smiles.

“I thought you said I could be me,” I whispered, my eyes beginning to sting. “That as long as I didn’t say anything, it wasn’t a lie.”

“You can be you,” Dad said. “Just watch how you talk and who you friendly with.”

I almost unraveled right then, knowing he meant no Black friends. I flung a betrayed look to Mom. This fresh start wouldn’t just be about starting a new life. It’d be about playing white.

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