Harvard Educational Review
  1. Chameleon

    Charles R. Smith Jr.

    Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2008. 377 pp. $16.99

    In Chameleon, a novel for young adults, Charles R. Smith Jr. takes readers on a tumultuous tour of Compton, California, as experienced by four teenage boys during the summer before their freshman year of high school. Through lively and engaging prose, Smith recounts their good times and challenges as they navigate their sometimes dangerous environment. Although the book offers educators an opportunity to expose students to the harsh realities that confront many urban youth, educators who use the book in class should be prepared to lead critical conversations regarding the objectification of omen
    and the validation of fighting as a heroic act.

    Smith tells the story from the first-person perspective of Shawn, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who discovers girls and shoots hoops with his African American friends Andre, Lorenzo, and Trent while attempting to avoid confrontations with gangs that make life difficult for nonmembers who set foot on their turf. Shawn must also care for his alcoholic aunt, who is supposed to keep an eye on him while his divorced mother is at work. Over time Shawn finds it increasingly difficult to contain his frustrations toward the gangs and his aunt, as well as his affection for Marisol, a friendly Mexican American teen who knots his belly and ties his tongue.

    Shawn spends most evenings with his caring and ever-suspicious mother, who interrogates him about his daily affairs and disapproves of his friends. Despite Shawn’s protests, her skepticism only grows when Shawn comes home with a black eye. Shawn’s father—whom Shawn visits on certain weekends—also sees the black eye and listens attentively as Shawn confides in him many of the frustrations he had kept from his mother. Ultimately, Shawn’s parents decide that he must choose whether to attend the high school in Compton with his friends, Marisol, and gang members or go to a safer school with a reputation for stronger academics. Despite Shawn’s frustration with gang violence,
    his choice becomes difficult as he grows closer to Marisol and his three friends.

    Smith graphically describes Shawn’s experiences with gang violence and his aunt’s alcoholism. Readers will feel bones breaking and golf clubs making contact with bodies as Shawn reluctantly engages in fisticuffs. And his pain is just as apparent as he repeatedly carries his incapacitated aunt to the couch only to hear her demand another drink. Although these descriptions are arguably too vivid for middle-schoolers, they will engage high school readers and spark important conversations on the dilemmas Shawn confronts. Is it OK to participate in a fight in order to defend a friend? Should Shawn spend more time with his needy aunt? Readers who can personally relate to Shawn’s experiences will benefit from the opportunity to consider them from the perspective of an observer; readers with different experiences will benefit from contemplating Shawn’s dilemmas for the first time as he wrestles with his own ambivalence.

    Less beneficial to readers is the manner in which the boys discuss women. Their conversations focus almost exclusively on physical attributes, leaving few body parts to the imagination and ignoring characteristics related to personality or intellect. Insofar as most teenage boys are focused on women’s physical attributes, it is understandable that Smith highlights them to maintain a sense of authenticity for readers. However, Smith misses an opportunity to counterbalance this focus with a more mature perspective by portraying Shawn’s father as similarly shallow. His objectification of women is particularly disappointing since he is an otherwise upstanding character who Shawn emulates without reservation.

    Smith also misses an opportunity to raise the question of whether fighting to defend a friend is a wise decision. Instead, Smith validates Shawn’s decision to fight through the unconditional praise he receives from his father and other adults. Although it would have been difficult for Shawn to stand by and watch his friends get hurt, at the very least these adults could have helped him consider different strategies for avoiding future altercations. As evidenced by the overconfidence Shawn displays at the end of the story, the praise he received ultimately did him a disservice.

    Chameleon is action-packed and fraught with dilemmas that could make for rich classroom discussion, provided that educators are willing to help students develop appropriate attitudes toward women and effective strategies for conflict avoidance.

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