DeShawn is from the Frederick Douglass Project. Ruled by the Douglass Disciples, it's a place where gang culture is an everyday reality. Where boys who should be in school shoot each other dead.
DeShawn doesn't want to join a gang. He wants to stay in school and get a job someday. Maybe build a life with his girlfriend Tanisha. But when his grandmother can't afford to put food on the table, what else can he do?
Told over the course of several years, If I Grow Up tells the story of a boy named DeShawn who lives in the projects. DeShawn is a clever, good-hearted boy who basically doesn't have many choices. We first meet him aged twelve, when he's already seen enough of gang violence to be sure that he never wants to join the Frederick Douglass Project's resident gang, the Disciples. Around the same time, one of the few good teachers at his school is trying to encourage him to spend the next two years preparing for the entrance exam at an academy a bus ride away, where he can get a better education. So far, so familiar. However, the thing about If I Grow Up is that this isn't your average story of one determined boy triumphing over adversity. It's a book that shows you that while it might be comforting to believe it's that simple, it isn't. It's also a book that shows you how it really is.
At twelve years old, DeShawn is the kind of character I could instantly relate to, despite the fact that his life is a million miles away from my own. He's loyal, perceptive, and above all he has integrity. From the first few pages, I wanted things to work out for him - be it with his education, staying out of trouble, or with the girl he likes. Especially with the girl he likes, who just happens to live on another gang's turf and gives the story a Romeo and Juliet vibe as well as a girl's perspective. But as the years go by, we learn more and more about what drives the boys on the Frederick Douglass project to join the Disciples. At the start of the book I didn't think I'd ever fully comprehend why so many young boys feel they have no other choice, but as I got into DeShawn's head I began to understand.
DeShawn's story doesn't go the way you might hope, or the way you might expect, but it is a powerful story that will touch readers' hearts and get them angry at the way the world works. Although the focus is firmly on DeShawn, Todd Strasser has excelled in creating a convincing community of secondary characters you'll come to care about and root for - from misunderstood boy genius Lightbulb to the Disciples' leader Marcus himself. For a book of just over two hundred pages, this one packs a punch.
Before I read this book, I didn't think I'd enjoy it. Why? Well, mainly, the cover. I'm a fairly girly type and I was initially put off by the stark image of the gun. What I would say now is that I think that this cover has the potential to get If I Grow Up into the hands of the people who need to read it most - and that's those who are faced with the same kind of choices DeShawn is every day. As the cover would lead you to expect, this book doesn't shy away from the tough realities that some people - some teens - have to deal with all the time. However, it's also a book that has a lot to say to those of us who live relatively safe, privileged lives and only encounter gang violence on the news. Filled with action from the first page, it's a story that will grip readers and also get them thinking. It's one for everyone.
Out: March 4th 2010, UK / February 24th 2009, US
Thank you to Simon and Schuster UK for providing a copy for review.