Last week, my friend Maddie gave me a signed copy of Rainbow High, by Alex Sanchez. It's the story of three gay teenage boys, facing their senior year of high school. It's actually the second book in a trilogy (beginning with Rainbow Boys and concluding with Rainbow Road), but it holds up just fine on its own.
Rainbow High alternates between the perspectives of the three main characters. First off is the flamboyant, blue-haired Nelson, who is starting to get involved with a boy who is HIV-positive. Then there is the slightly geeky, good student Kyle, newly involved with basketball star Jason, who is deciding whether or not to come out to his coach and teammates. All three struggle with acceptance, or lack thereof, from parents, teammates, coaches, classmates, and, in Jason's case, ex-girlfriends.
I have to admit that this book made me a bit uncomfortable. I'm not accustomed to reading about intimate moments between teenage boys, and it took some getting used to. (To be fair, I don't like to read steamy heterosexual scenes in my youth literature, either.) However, before long I started to care about these particular boys. Rainbow High also gave me some insight into how incredibly difficult it must be to be gay and in high school. I mean, it's difficult to be in high school at all, gay or straight. But dealing with coming out, and whether your parents accept you, and whether or not your school of choice will discriminate against you, and whether or not you might catch HIV - these sorts of things must really ratchet up the difficulty meter.
I'm not generally a fan of "message" books. And I do think that this book falls somewhat into that category (you can tell because there's supplemental material at the end about teen helplines and the like). However, I also think that one of the functions of novels is to help people to develop understanding of and empathy for people who are different from them. Once we start to care about the characters, we see the problems that they face in a different way. If this book makes me uncomfortable, and I keep reading anyway because I like the characters, then I might learn something.
Rainbow High transcends the "message book" genre anyway. The main characters are all distinct and engaging, with realistic dialog, and realistically complex family relationships. And they all have interesting stories to tell.
I read Rainbow High quite quickly, for the same reason I have always read good books quickly - because I wanted to know what would happen next. Would Jason lose his scholarship? Would Nelson give up his relationship with Jeremy? Would Kyle decide to go to Princeton? Who would end up going to the prom together? (Isn't there a rule that all teen stories have to end up with a prom?).
But the book also left me with more of an understanding of the issues that gay teens face today. I would think that Rainbow High could provide this function for any teen reader (though I wouldn't recommend it for kids much younger than high school, due to the mature themes). For gay teens, I would imagine that this book could make them feel like they're not alone - like other people have faced some of the same issues, and triumphed. And if this book is a lifeline or an inspiration to kids who need it, then more power to Alex Sanchez. This book is well worth people's time. I also highly recommend the organization GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which focuses on ensuring safe schools for all students.
Personally, I'll look forward to reading Rainbow Road. Thanks for the book, Maddie! And congratulations on getting tenure. You deserve it.