Chameleon by Charles R. Smith Jr.

chameleonHey you!  Yeah, you sitting there reading this blog. Have you read Chameleon yet?  No?  Do me a favor – head down to your local indie bookstore or your branch library.  Yes, right now.  Come back when you’ve got a copy of this book.

Got it?  Good.

Shawn is a young man straddling the line between being a child and being a teen, between Compton and the suburbs, between middle school and high school.   And this summer he has a major decision to make.  He’ll be starting at high school in the fall, and his parents have given him the choice between the high school in Compton – where all his friends are, but where the Crips and the Pirus make trouble and the principal is rumored to use a paddle on students who act out – and a new high school near his mother’s suburban home in Carson – which is safer and probably has a lot more choices academically, but where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s a complicated choice, and Shawn is a thoughtful kid who is going to consider it from all sides – he casts it as a choice between “freedom or friendship” (page 228). 

But while Shawn’s choice is what drives the character growth in the novel, the story is carried by his day-to-day life.  The reader gets to tag along with Shawn and his goofy 13-year-old buddies while they shoot hoops, talk about girls, and eat everything in sight.  And with every one of these small events in Shawn’s day, the reader can feel him considering the different parts of his life.   The choice looming over him lend a weight to every thing that happens, allowing this book to chronicle even the smallest parts of his life without ever feeling trivial.

This is a book that starts with a yo mama joke.  It is the first thing on page one.  And there could be no better way to set the stage for the rest of the novel.  Because this is not a novel about what happens – there are a few exciting moments, including a fight between the Crips and the Pirus, but those larger events are not the heart of this book.  A quick, flirtatious conversation with a girl working the register at a burger joint is given as much narrative importance as the gang trouble Shawn encounters.  And that’s what I loved best about this book.  While it doesn’t shy away from the big issues of modern urban life – alcoholism, gang violence, urban blight – it’s not about them, either.  These things don’t define Shawn, and they are not the center of his life or the novel.  It is a story about being a young man in L.A. – about both the silly conversations and the big ones that make up Shawn’s life, about his doubts and his dreams.  And while those problems are there, the positive forces in Shawn’s life are strong – from his caring parents to his buddies who watch out for him. 

Since conversation is at the center of this book, it’s a good thing that Smith has such a pitch-perfect sense of the easy rhythm of boys.  The relaxed, free-flowing conversation feels exactly like something I would hear from some of the funnier guys in my library – and capturing that patter without sounding forced or fake is not an easy task.  In the final third of the book, when Shawn is with his family more than his three buddies, I missed their easy chatter.  The in-game descriptions of Shawn’s basketball games are also masterful – Smith creates a lot of excitement and movement in his prose during the pick-up games, and boy readers especially will be caught up in the flow of the action.

While all of the chatter between Shawn and his boys is engaging, realistic, and funny, the best of the bunch are the ones about sex.  These are young men on the cusp – old enough to be very aware of sex, but with a lot of curiousity and anxiousness underneath all the bravado.  When the older brother of one of Shawn’s buddies comes home from the Navy for shore leave, it sets the boys off on a hilariously raunchy, but still innocently 13-year-old, line of teasing conversation. 

I have only one concern about this book: I want more people to buy and read it.  If we want our boys to keep reading as the make the transition to being teens – and especially our African-American boys who live in urban neighborhoods – this is exactly the kind of book we need.  More books like this one to be written and published.   And if books like this don’t sell, that’s not going to happen.   I’ve been really impressed by the sudden availability of lots of books that appeal to urban teen girls, and we are seeing more of those books because they are  being purchased in large numbers.  I want that to happen with books like Chameleon, too.  So I’m going to go out and buy a couple of copies to pass on to friends.  And I’m going to buy copies for the library and booktalk the heck out of this one.  Will you join me?

Chameleon on the web.

Charles R. Smith, Jr. on the web.