Monday, June 29, 2009
Playing ball and dodging the bad guys
If you're looking for a truly get summertime read about a group of guys hitting the basketball court, talking about girls and pondering life then look no further than Charles R. Smith's pitch perfect Chameleon. From my current Bookslut column:
Set in the L.A. neighborhood of Compton, Smith follows the trials and travails of four friends preparing to enter high school. The narrator, Shawn, is a bundle of typical teen confusions: he is excited about what high school might bring but also terrified by its sheer size. Shawn also has an awesome crush on a longtime school friend, Marisol which renders him nearly incapable of speech in her presence (and is a great source of hilarity for his friends). There is a lot of basketball, a lot of trying to figure out what to do everyday, a lot of pooling money for food and some lucky run-ins with Marisol and her friends in Chameleon as Shawn and his buds wander through long hot summer days filled with few plans and many daydreams. Where things get complicated is that Compton is a place fraught with peril for teenage boys as two warring gangs zealously guard their turf and their colors on nearly every corner. Shawn has been on the receiving end of gang violence in the past and he and his friends find it again this summer but the book is not a gang novel, it is a firmly and most successfully a buddy novel, and any teenage boy will find much to identify with in Shawn’s thoughtful observations of family, friendship and young love.
Charles R. Smith is best known for his books for younger children, most impressively the biography in poems, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (It’s a stunner -- be sure to look it up.) Chameleon is his first YA novel and although it came out last year I have not heard a lot of buzz about it on the blogs. I had a few trepidations about reviewing the novel as my Caucasian suburban female upbringing gives me little basis to judge the merits of a novel involving four African American teen boys who dodge gangs in Compton. I honestly had one of those moments where I wondered if this was a book I should even attempt to review. I found many reasons to care about Shawn and his friends and I very much wanted to know what was going to happen to them as their summer continued. Shawn’s divorced parents, both of whom care about him deeply, were a pleasure to read about and it was particularly gratifying to read Smith’s long discussions between parent and child. This is a kid who knows he is loved and that makes his life so much easier to navigate. It was also nice to read about his friends and their siblings; one has a brother in the navy, another a sister with a track scholarship to college (the other boys are all in love with her) and another a brother who seems to be slipping into the drug lifestyle with a local gang. Smith portrays the people of Compton (including the folks in the neighborhood, the park and on the courts) with great care. Shawn sees the world around him – all of it – as he shoots baskets, trades jokes and nearly faints at the mere site of Marisol. This neighborhood is not a perfect place but it’s one with plenty of hope and possibility as long as you make your choices with care. That’s a valid point in pretty much any teenager’s life and a big part of why I fell in love with Chameleon and knew I had to write about it. Most highly recommended.
Someone's going to have to explain to me why this book isn't way more popular - it's a great coming-of-age story with an added element of drama due to the setting. The kids are so compelling though and Smith tells it like it is - without leaning on the gang setting. It's awesome and should be read asap.