Chameleon Dad – Debbie Thomas

Stars: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Connie’s Dad went to buy her a cup of hot chocolate at the airport cafe. Eight years later, he still hasn’t come back.

Despite loving her foster-mum, Connie is desperate to track down her dad and find out what happened to him; why would he leaver her? When a mysterious letter appears, she vows to track him down with the help of her new friend, Thyo, and her pet chameleon, Hue. Soon, they are boarding a plane on the most exciting and scary journey of their lives…but will their destination hold the answers they’re hoping for?

Set during the summer holidays, Chameleon Dad takes Connie from Ireland to England, where she is on an adventure to find her father. Not only is she discovering new dinosaurs, but she is pulled into a scary scientific experiment. But alongside this exciting premise, there are emotional themes which are dealt with, allowing the reader to build empathy.

Connie is in foster-care and has feelings of abandonment towards her Dad after he has left her in an airport. Not only do we explore her discovering his whereabouts, but her feelings prior to this. Her connection with her foster-mum, Mags, is also one which is unusual to see within children’s literature, but definitely an under-represented group that need to be more visible on our classroom shelves.

But don’t just take my word for it! I was lucky enough to have a Q & A with the fabulous author, Debbie Thomas. Find out what she thinks of her book below:

1) why do you think it’s important for visibility of foster children in books?

Two answers here: one is emotional/empathetic and one more ‘technical’! 

Emotional/empathetic (what a mouthful – let’s call it ‘Empotional’).

Parents are traditionally the primary care givers: the first(ish) faces we see at birth, the people who celebrate our arrival and nurture our growth with unconditional love, and the ones who will always accept us, whatever we do … in theory. Of course no parents are perfect but that’s the general idea. And biological parents fall in the middle of the bell curve because that’s the most common ‘arrangement’ of families. 

But what about someone who’s on the edge of that bell curve? Whose flesh-and-blood forbears can’t provide that love and safety, and who doesn’t know why they can’t? I’m drawn to people who feel on the edge of a group (probably because I often do!) – and that’s Connie in Chameleon Dad. I’m not for a minute saying that all foster children feel that way; I just wanted to tell one specific story in which the protagonist discovers that love and acceptance, not flesh and blood, are what make true family. 

Technical

Most – if not all – children’s stories involve parents in some way: their presence or absence. And when the protagonist is a child (usually the case in children’s stories), the challenge for the story creator is how to remove that safety net: to leave a gap for the adventure that tests the hero or heroine’s courage, wits, kindness or other qualities. The shocking disappearance of Connie’s dad, and her fostering by Mags the cleaner at Dublin Airport, set up a huge question for Connie and me to explore: why on earth did her loving dad walk away from her in Dublin Airport and never come back? If that wasn’t challenging enough, how could Connie and I bring comedy and fun into this devastating premise? 

Aha! Enter Hue the chameleon and Thyo the fossil hunting friend.  

2) which character was the most interesting for you to write? 

Fuzzy answer – all of them. But I’ll nail it down a little. Hue the chameleon for comedy; I loved observing and researching chameleons. They’re like snooty court jesters with their sticky-lightning tongues, super-strong tails, googly eyes and of course technicolour wardrobe. I also loved writing Naledi the South African palaeontologist. I studied geology at university so it was fun to invent a new dinosaur species for her to discover. But more precious to me was the justice and love I wanted to bring through her character. We moved to South Africa just after the end of apartheid and lived there for eight years. We had a friend from a township who’d grown up suffering the horrors of that system. She’d spent many years leaving her children in her tin shack at 5am every morning to come to the posh suburbs and look after privileged kids of the same age all day, before going home to find that her home had been bulldozed by the apartheid authorities. Every evening she would rebuild it. Nomfusi is the kindest, wisest, smartest lady you can imagine, and with proper opportunities she could have been a doctor, a lawyer, President of South Africa – or a palaeontologist. She is my heroine, and I wanted to honour her in the character of Naledi, who deals with racial prejudice with glittering authority and triumph.  

3) if you could use just three words to describe Chameleon Dad, what would they be? Fun, heart-filled, gripping (I hope!) 

4) why did you choose for the adventure Connie goes on to be between two countries? 

I grew up in the UK so am familiar with the culture. I’ve lived in Ireland for 16 years and have Irish citizenship so, while it now feels like home, I will always have a foot in the UK where family members still live. The Irish Sea also provided a great barrier for Connie to cross in secret, to break free from her protective foster mum Mags. The journey (on a plane with a chameleon illegally on her front under her hoodie) was a huge test for her resourcefulness and courage (don’t try this at home, children). 

5) how did the idea for Chameleon Dad develop? 

Although it’s a comedy adventure, Chameleon Dad was prompted by a serious question: how do some people manage to transform sad or bad experiences in a way that’s helpful for the rest of their lives? I have friends who have been through terrible things – illness, bereavement, prejudice, poverty – and who are amazingly joyful and positive. I have other friends who have been through much less but live much more fearfully and negatively. I knew I could never answer that question generally, as everyone’s case differs, but at least I could journey with one character who chooses to reframe a very sad memory into something that gives her hope. And as Connie sees herself as the heroine of her story, I hope young readers will too, in difficult situations they might face. The challenge was to make this heavy topic lots of fun. And that’s where Hue the chameleon, Thyo the quirky friend, and Thyo’s family – his mum Naledi the brilliant palaeontologist, his sister Abri the cool fashionista, and his dad Ned the nervous artist who’s terrified of reptiles – came in.  Not to mention Mags the soft-hearted, overprotective foster mum who’s a cleaner at Dublin Airport, and her admirer and boss Joe who’s so lonely that he befriends a hedgehog in his garden called Mr Spickles.

6) was Connie inspired by anyone you know? 

Not directly. Like many of my characters, she grew from qualities I admire (and a few I don’t!) in different people. Her great features are courage, spontaneity, kindness and – as a result of her adventure – loyalty and love. Those are attributes I see in many of my friends and ones I long for myself. I’ve always shared her love of mountains – they make you look up in life – and probably a touch of her black-and-white thinking, which I’m not so proud of. Growing older, I try to live more in the grey (hey, maybe that’s why hair goes grey – an overspill from our mellowing brains).  The joy of writing Connie, though, was that I started with the bare bones, and simply watched as she covered herself with flesh. A bit like joining dots to make a picture, or digging up fossil bones and piecing them together into a dinosaur – just like in Chameleon Dad. 

If you like the sound of this book, you can buy it here.

Emily x

📚Book gifted by publisher.

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