Interview with Charlene Allen

Everyone, please welcome Charlene Allen to Rich in Color! We’re excited to have her here to talk about her novel, PLAY THE GAME, which came out earlier this year:

The cover looks like a scrapbook page and is filled with photographs. Most feature young Black men, but there is also a young Black woman. There is a picture of the statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge and buildings from New York. Play the Game by Charlene Allen
Katherine Tegan Books

In the game of life, sometimes other people hold all the controls. Or so it seems to VZ. Four months have passed since his best friend Ed was killed by a white man in a Brooklyn parking lot.

When Singer, the man who killed Ed, is found dead in the same spot where Ed was murdered, all signs point to Jack, VZ’s other best friend, as the prime suspect.

VZ’s determined to complete the video game Ed never finished and figure out who actually killed Singer. With help from Diamond, the girl he’s crushing on at work, VZ falls into Ed’s quirky gameiverse. As the police close in on Jack, the game starts to uncover details that could lead to the truth about the murder.

Can VZ honor Ed and help Jack before it’s too late?

And now, on to the interview:

Thank you for joining us, Charlene! Please take a moment to introduce yourself.

Hey! I’m Charlene Allen. In addition to being a writer, I’m a mom to an awesome son and a quirky dog, I’m a life-partner, and I’m an activist working to end mass incarceration. Play the Game is my debut novel.

In PLAY THE GAME, VZ and his friendships with Ed and Jack are at the heart of what drives the plot. Can you tell us a little more about the three of them?

VZ, Ed and Jack are the kind of friends that grow up together because their parents are close, so they are always at each other’s houses. They’re more like cousins than friends. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, most embarrassing haircuts. Everything! And they’re all very different from each other. Jack’s all about the swagger, VZ ‘s into keeping it mellow, and Ed’s a proud gamer geek.

What other characters play important roles in PLAY THE GAME? What can you tell us about them?

The two other main characters in Play the Game are Chela and Diamond. Chela is VZ’s best school buddy, so a friend that exists entirely outside the triangle he, Ed and Jack form. Chela helps VZ with the mystery he has to solve to keep Jack out of trouble. But she doesn’t coddle him. When he gets in his feelings about Ed and Jack, she calls him on it and helps him see things more objectively. Diamond is VZ’s love interest. She’s taken, in a relationship with a guy they both work with, but there’s real romantic tension between her and VZ and neither one of them is able to ignore it.

How have your experiences as a lawyer and advocate influenced your writing for PLAY THE GAME?

My experience as a lawyer helped me see up close and personally how ineffective and inequitable our criminal legal system can be. That led me to do work to try to transform the system and find alternative approaches to conflict and harm; approaches that exist outside the system. All of that features in Play the Game, as VZ begins to understand how the system works, and takes on the question of what he and his friends can do to find a better way.

Restorative justice is an important part of PLAY THE GAME. What are some common misconceptions people have about restorative justice?

Great question and one that’s tough to answer quickly. I think “RJ” is becoming a buzz term and with that comes a lot of misconceptions. Often, people think of a restorative approach as anything that involves talking or is non-punitive. So, a school might have a restorative approach that involves all the parties in a situation having a conversation, but then if everything isn’t quickly resolved they resort to suspension or other forms of punishment. In that example, “RJ” is being used as a step inside of a larger existing system which, to me, defeats the purpose. To adopt a restorative approach is to involve community and engage with methods of accountability that don’t exist in most systems. It’s a culture shift, so it requires time and dedication to implement.

What’s something you’re particularly proud of in PLAY THE GAME?

I love that I was able to weave a lot of different elements together; the actual game that readers get to play in the book, the friendship story and mystery, the love story, and the RJ. It was my goal to write a book in which tough things happen, but the book is still a fun read because it captures the spirit of young people who lean into their friendships, abandon themselves to the throes of first love, and live their way into healing and self-discovery.

Now that PLAY THE GAME is in readers’ hands, what is up next for you?

I’m finishing my next YA novel which should come out in the fall of ‘24. I’m excited because it’s completely different from Play the Game, but I think equally adventurous. It’s about a girl who’s digging up family secrets and figuring out where she belongs in the world.

And to close us out, what young adult books by BIPOC authors are you looking forward to reading this year?

I’ve just started The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes, which is a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to finishing. I’m also looking forward to Ain’t Burned All the Bright by Jason Reynolds and Jayson Griffin. And, though I’m not sure if it’s technically YA, I’m excited to read Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi.

Author photo for Charlene Allen, a Black woman. She is smiling widely at something or someone just off center from the camera. She has her hands on her hips and looks like like she's ready to explore the fuzzy city in the background behind her. She is wearing brown pants and a cream and brown polka-dotted shirt.Charlene Allen works with community organizations to heal trauma and fight injustice, especially the beast called mass incarceration. She received her MFA from The New School, her JD from Northeastern University, and her BA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She lives in Brooklyn with her fabulous family and their very silly dog. Play the Game is her debut novel. You can visit her at