Chameleon by Charles R. Smith 2008
IQ "They see four of us walking down the street and think we wanna rob them. They think we want what they have when we not even thinking about them at all. Why can't we just be four young black kids? Better yet, why can't we just be four teenagers? Not four suspicious characters. We aren't characters. We real-I'm real." pg. 315
This is my second book being reviewed about summer within two days (see One Crazy Summer) and I really want summer to be here, now please! No school, just me, my books and friends. Ah well Winter break is coming up so I won't whine too much, since no one wants to hear that :)
It's the summer before freshman year of high school for Shawn and his three best friends; Lorenzo, Andre and Trey. They all live in Compton (except Shawn who lives in Carson but his mom drops him off at his aunt's house in Compton). They start off thinking the summer will be boring, but it turns out to be a bit more exciting than they thought. Shawn stays with his alcoholic aunt Gertie during the day while his mother works in a university cafeteria. He comes from a divorced home and only sees his dad every now and then on the weekends, however it is clear to Shawn and the reader that his father cares deeply about him.
The book offered a new perspective for me since I've never experienced a summer like the one that the boys had. They had no plans whatsoever, just whatever they felt like (and could afford )to do that day. However the book isn't monotonous, it's not completely lively, but filled with small actions and adventures that combine to form a pleasant read. I don't know much about Compton or gangs (although they are a huge problem in the city where I live) so I'm taking the author's word that the book is realistic in its portrayal of gangs. One of the most well-written parts of the book are the parts about gang violence. The two colors that can not be worn are red and blue. Red is for the Pirus, blue is for the Crips. Every day the boys do a color check, they make sure they aren't wearing a color they could get in trouble for; the consequences are grave, being beaten up or worse. I can't imagine not being able to wear what I ever want for fear of retaliation (although there are certain places that you just know not to go where I live, just like in Compton, but not as bad, I don't think). The naive me wants to ask "Who cares?" but that's only a question that a gang member could answer, because I really don't get it.
All the characters keep you firmly engaged in the story. Shawn is a great character; he's smart, good at basketball, funny and loyal. He'll do anything for his boys and they for him. He truly has a great group of friends. Shawn also thinks fast on his feet, with hilarious results (an incident with a dug while trying to get pomegranates results in a new fashion statement). Shawn's mother is a bit overprotective, but smart and loving. She's determined to see Shawn go to college and often brings back suggestions of books Shawn should read (she gets the suggestions from professors at the university she works at). Shawn's father travels a lot and educates him about the places he's been to, he also wants to see Shawn go to college. Shawn has a strong bond with his father, which is really nice to read about.
What I didn't like about the book was that I don't think it was ever made really clear as to why Shawn's mother continuously drove him 12 miles from their home in Carson to his alcoholic aunt's house in Compton. She kept complaining about Compton being dangerous, but her solution was to try and force him to stay at home with his aunt. His aunt isn't exactly a great influence, he has to take care of her quite often and she causes him to have some painful, humiliating memories. Why couldn't Shawn's mother just leave him at home by himself? He's about to be a freshman, definitely old enough to watch himself. I think her reasoning could of been made a little clearer. I also would have liked to learn a little more about Shawn's friends, we learned a lot about Lorenzo, but not so much about Andre and Trey. And a few more details on Marisol (Shawn's first-love) would have been nice.
Chameleon takes you through a whole course of summer. It's a fun, humorous, painful, bumpy ride to fall, high school and maturity. The novel is highly entertaining. It starts off with a yo' mama joke and the fun continues on. It's an entertaining read that consists of boys being boys (i.e. making jokes, talking about girls, playing sports and being restless) and compelling characters. The boys deal with gangs, sterotypes aganist African American males, dogs, alcoholism, drugs, basketball, girls, hot days and kung fu. I love reading books about guys because they're so funny, they're blunt and sometimes a bit crude, but I like that every now and then! Their humor is refreshing and often they are less concerned about what others think of them. It's nice to see a positive book about an African American teenager struggling with life in the inner-city. Shawn, is one of the lucky ones (sadly there are too few cases similar to his) with two loving parents who (though not together) support him and love him, which will enable him (along with his brightness) to go far in life. 8th grade and up.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Chameleon from Laura Rivas at Candlewick Press. Thanks Laura!