About Pushing Pawns
YA fiction for smart kids
He's got the moves. On the street and over the board.
Urban high school kid Moses Middleton hoped that chess competition could be a ticket out of mediocrity, but everything goes pear-shaped after a disastrous tournament. That’s when he meets Viktor, a mad Russian grandmaster who agrees to coach the team by revealing the secrets of Soviet chess.
Together with his crew — charismatic psychopath P.D. Morales, gifted violinist and expert fencer Esther Toussaint, shy anime fan Maggie Wang, and the new boy, Albanian chess wizard Zamir Hoxha — Moses vows to take the world of New York City scholastic chess by storm. But trouble’s on the way, in the form of neighborhood bullies, a vengeful vice principal, racist gentrifiers, the snooty rich kids from Galton Prep, and, worst of all, a sexual predator who could destroy a young woman’s life and the team’s newfound solidarity.
Perfect for young fans of The Queen's Gambit, this "YA masterpiece" (Indie Reader) combines humor, drama, and social insight.
Winner: Best Fiction 2022, Indie Reader Discovery Awards
"An absolute powerhouse of a YA novel from start to finish. Smart, witty banter with a socially-aware Gen Z voice, the novel is fun, vivid at every turn. In the most diverse neighborhood in New York City, chess intersects with classism, as Moses and his team of vibrant friends square off across their boards against a privileged school of rich kids.
With guidance from a wizened Russian grandmaster and his old school Soviet tactics, Moses and friends recognize the value in strong friendships—how loyalty blossoms, how it can solidify them as a united, butt-kicking team. The characters are as vibrant as the history of chess itself—including Moses’ poignant, and often laugh-out-loud narrative style. Even those who have no particular interest in the game will fall in love with the characters and Moses’ unique point of view.
PUSHING PAWNS tackles real-life issues of gentrification, classism, racism, and [harassment] in a thoughtful, nuanced way. All of this entwines with the game of chess, which itself is wrapped in politics, philosophy, and brilliant strategy. Throughout, the tone is refreshingly hopeful and honest. Competitive chess scenes fly off the page, choreographed with the high-stakes action and breathless pace of a fight. Moses describes them like battle scenes, captivating from each opening straight through to the endgame. A refreshingly hopeful contemporary about the importance of having a support system, complete with a satisfying dose of revenge."
—Jessica Thomas for IndieReader (5 star review)
"This debut YA novel sees a Black chess enthusiast commit more fully to his high school teammates and—through their camaraderie—tackle problems away from the board.
Fourteen-year-old Moses “Mose” Middleton attends Q722, a public school in Jackson Heights, Queens. Mose is a keen amateur chess player and has organized a team to compete in tournaments run by the NYC Chess in the Schools program. Though united by a desire to prove themselves, Mose and his friends have difficulties that prevent them from giving their best. Mose is prone to concentration lapses, often the result of focusing too much on his opponent. P.D. “Personality Disorder” Morales is a genius underachiever with truancy issues that frequently extend to chess. (He will wander off midcompetition and forfeit games.) Maggie Wang has problems with a creepy uncle at home. Esther Toussaint is a self-driven overachiever with little time for the game. And Zamir Hoxha is a recently arrived Albanian immigrant who is being bullied at school. If the team is to survive, Mose knows he’ll need to bring the members closer together. His first step? To seek out the mentorship of Viktor Fleischmann, a Russian player. Viktor “was rumored to be an international grandmaster who’d lost his marbles and run out of luck.” Under his guidance, will the five young players become greater than the sum of their troubled parts?
In this series opener, Novak writes in the first person, past tense from Mose’s perspective. The dialogue is convincingly Generation Z, and Mose is an able representative of a non-White, unprivileged upbringing—someone forced by life to be acutely aware of racial and social dynamics yet determined to rise above injustice and always behave appropriately (he is mindful of toxic masculinity). Mose is not without flaws, but he remains a thoughtful, self-aware protagonist who is easy to cheer for. The other characters are well drawn, and the author is both measured and respectful in presenting different ideologies. The chess content is accurate throughout yet not so detailed as to put off nonplayers. The story moves quickly but naturally, weaving with [confidence] between the chess plot and Mose’s and his friends’ various issues. Young readers should very much approve and enjoy.
Eye-opening and engaging; a triumphant mashup of underdog sporting contest and teen drama."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)