Title: Rainbow Boys
Author: Alex Sanchez
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age Level: 9th Grade and Up
Rainbow Boys tells the story of Nelson, Kyle and Jason. Nelson is the stereotypical gay male-a little swishy, with multiple piercings and multi-colored hair. Kyle is a quiet, sweet boy, a swimmer on the high school swim team. Jason is a popular jock, deeply in the closet. When the novel begins, Nelson is completely out to everyone, including his very liberal mother who is the chairperson of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Kyle is out to Nelson and the other teens in their GLBT support group, but not to his family. He also is deeply infatuated with Jason, looking at his picture in the yearbook so often the page is fading. Jason is dating Debra, and trying with all of his might to pretend that he is not having feelings for other boys. When the other guys make gay jokes, or harass Nelson (whom they call Nelly), he laughs or turns away. Finally he gets up the courage to go to a meeting of the support group, and is horrified to find Kyle and Nelson there. When he runs, Kyle follows him. The two boys strike up a friendship when Kyle agrees to help him with his math. Slowly, as Jason spend more time with Kyle, he breaks up with his girlfriend and comes to terms with his true orientation. Nelson, meanwhile, has decided that he is in love with Kyle, and tries to put the moves on him. When that doesn't work, he descends into depression, binging and purging and having unprotected sex with an older man he met on the internet. Afraid he may have contracted HIV, he sinks even lower, refusing to go to school. Turns out that Nelson, who is so open about his sexual orientation, doesn't really know any more about how to go about this whole dating business than anyone else. An act of gay bashing makes Jason realize that it is too dangerous not to stand up for himself and his friends, and leads to him finally coming out to his family.
If the above summary reminds you of a soap opera, you are not far wrong. There are a lot of issues tackled in this book, from sexual orientation to gay bashing to bulimia to alcoholism. Despite the somewhat soapish nature of the plot, the subjects are all handled in an honest way, without any sensationalism or gratuitous detail.
Each of the boys comes from a very different family. Nelson lives with his mother, and has almost no contact with his father. Nelson's mother is the epitome of what gay-accepting parents should be. She stands up for her son and his right to be who he is, and is actively involved in working for gay rights. Kyle's parents are well-meaning, though his dad is constantly pushing him into sports. That's the only reason Kyle joined the swim team, though he finds that swimming is something that helps him clear his head. When he comes out to his parents, they are taken aback, and both of them struggle to understand how he became the way he is. When push comes to shove, however, and they find out that he is being harassed at school, they stand up for him. Jason's dad is an alcoholic-a violent one at that. He found Jason and another boy experimenting when they were 10, and ever since he has called him pansy or faggot. It is only after Jason brings Nelson and Kyle back to his house after they were jumped on the street, and his dad starts in on them, that he is able to stand up to him and tell him his deepest secret. There's no storybook ending here-Dad does not suddenyl decide to go to AA and become a PFLAG member. He leaves the family and disowns Jason.
It is this authenticity and honesty that makes the book so appealing. Each of the boys could represent someone I know, or should I say that I know someone who went through what each of these boys did. The characters are well-developed, and you feel sympathy for each of them. The plot is well-paced, and the events feel real. When Kyle's mom finds his gay porno mag, you wince right along with him. When Nelson gets so depressed he can't get out of bed, you remember what being 17 was like yourself, how intensely teens feel everything. Sadly, the boys harassing Kyle and Nelson are also completely believable. The book was written in 2001, but even with all of the advances in gay rights and awareness that have happened in our country since there are still too many boys like them in our schools.
Sanchez does an excellent job of balancing the personal stories of the boys and some heavily debated societal issues. When the boys want to start a Gay Straight Alliance at their school, there is the expected opposition from religious groups. The teachers ignoring the harassment the boys are getting, and in fact blaming them for it because they can't act more "normal", is something that is still true. Parental acceptance of gay youth differs, though I like to think that more parents are supportive than there used to be. Overall, this novel brings home the issues that gay teens face every day in a very accessible, personal way.
The themes in this novel are very well suited to the teenage population. The language is pretty salty, however, and there are a lot of homophobic slurs thrown in. All of the language is used appropriately for the context of the novel, but it is something you would want to prep your students for ahead of time. That said, I think that this novel would make a great addition to any study of social justice issues, tolerance, or coming-of-age novels.
Teaching Tolerance: Hidden Homophobia
Ms. Henson's Class Cultural Studies Unit Plan