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Rainbow Boys
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Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez
Reviewed by The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez

Young adult literature is often populated by token lone gay figures or, occasionally, a duo of queer teens lucky enough to find one another and instantly fall in love. Growing up gay is rarely so simple, as Sanchez shows in this coming-of-age novel told from the perspectives of three gay seniors-Jason Carillo, Nelson Glassman, and Kyle Meeks-who go to the same high school.

Jason is a popular kid and star athlete who's just beginning to come to terms with the possibility that his sexual orientation may be more complex than he has previously acknowledged, as he notices his desire for his girlfriend waning and his sexual dreams about men increasing. Hoping to slip in unnoticed to a Rainbow Youth meeting, he is stunned to encounter Nelson, an openly gay classmate, along with Nelson's friend Kyle; Jason has seen Kyle, a shy swimmer, "with Nelson at school, but he looked so... normal." Kyle in turn is thrilled: he has had a crush on Jason for ages, and he's ecstatic at the possibility of his dreams coming true. Nelson notices Kyle's excitement and responds with a jealousy that surprises him, leading him to realize that he may be in love with his best friend, who doesn't seem to love him back. Despite their common orientation, the three boys lead very different lives. Flamboyant Nelson brandishes camp like a weapon, supported by his divorced mother's acceptance and activism. Quiet Kyle is a question mark at school and closeted at home despite his long-term self-awareness. Complicating Jason's interrogation of his sexuality is his abusive alcoholic father, who hurls homophobic epithets as a matter of habit, and his adoring and beloved girlfriend. During the course of the novel, all three characters come more fully to terms with their sexual identities: Jason and Kyle come out to their parents, Kyle and Nelson start a Gay-Straight Alliance group at school in order to resist the sometimes violent homophobia of some of their classmates (Jason readies himself to attend the first meeting as the novel closes), and all three boys cross new sexual thresholds.

Sex is an important part of this book, which is refreshingly honest about the significance of the physical as well as the emotional. When sexual encounters are described, the writing is clear without being explicit or graphic, using a direct but tasteful manner comparable to some of Judy Blume's groundbreaking descriptions of heterosexual encounters; readers will understand exactly what the characters are experiencing without knowing exactly whose what is where. There's no stinting on the emotional, however, and the story pulsates with romantic longing ("They kissed with an urgency from which there was no turning back"). Kyle and Jason's courtship balances psychosocial issues with quite a dewy-eyed love story, complete with thrilling chance encounters and tender mementoes, that might have been at home in Seventeenth Summer. This relationship has its ups and downs, particularly as Jason resists his attraction to Kyle, but their growing intimacy is described with all the sweetness of falling in love for the first time. The love triangle of Jason, Kyle, and Nelson also demonstrates that homosexual romance can be just as personally complicated as heterosexual romance. Yet Sanchez never oversimplifies the parallel, maintaining a strong sense of the cultural and social difficulties faced by gay youth, many of which their heterosexual counterparts may never have imagined.

Additionally, Sanchez writes in breezy prose that brings a bracing lightness and accessibility to potentially heavy topics. His sentences are short and descriptions pithy, and the style easily incorporates both the locker-room rawness and casual informality appropriate to the teen protagonists ("Who would have thought that one day he'd have a gay guy over and together they'd listen to a tape of a group called The Butthole Surfers?"). Though the stories of these three boys refer to a range of issues, from the risks of anonymous sex to the difficulty of coming out (a list of resources is included at the end), the book never allows issues to overshadow the emotional power or slow the pace of the narrative. Instead, the author creates believably nuanced portrayals, offering a rare look at not just one or two, but three gay characters interacting with each other and acting within a larger community of gay and straight characters. When a work of fiction embodies such accuracy and emotional complexity, there is but one word to describe it: true. (Imprint information appears on p. 115.)

-- --Kate McDowell, Reviewer

Rainbow Boys
Cover illustration by Jack Louth from Rainbow Boys 2001. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on November 1, 2001.