Review — Rainbow Boys (Book 1)
Rainbow Boys is about three seniors in high school who all come to love and accept themselves for being gay. Jason is a jock who has a girlfriend but who starts to develop feelings for other boys. Kyle is a swimmer who has come out to his best friend Nelson but not his parents, and his one true love is Jason. Nelson is the out-and-proud one of the trio, with multi-colored hair and wild outfits, and he loves Kyle. When Jason shows up at a Rainbow Youth meeting on the outskirts of town, Kyle and Nelson say hi to him and recognize that one of the most popular “straight” guys at school is actually gay, and this scene sets off a series of incidents that bring Jason closer to his true identity and his romantic feelings for Kyle.
Jason starts to yell at his friends when they call Nelson “faggot” and spends time at Kyle’s house when he needs tutoring help with his math. Kyle’s big struggle is coming out to his parents, and once he believes Jason might have feelings for him, he does everything in his power to get with the man he loves. Nelson knows who he is right from the beginning, but his flashiness gets him in trouble multiple times, especially with a group of bullies who could have done serious damage if Jason didn’t show up to save him. Nelson has sex with a guy he met online and afterward thinks he might have contracted HIV, and he, like Jason and Kyle, has to deal with parents who don’t always agree with the life he’s leading. In the end, all three characters are out to their parents and to everyone at school, but there’s still a long road ahead.
The overwhelming theme of Rainbow Boys is standing up to others and being true to yourself, no matter what the costs. This novel features main characters who are deeply struggling with not just trying to come out of the closet but also dealing with close-minded friends and family members who want nothing to do with anything “gay.” Rainbow Boys shows the realities of trying to be yourself in an environment where other people are scared of anything that is different. While the horrors that Jason, Kyle, and Nelson go through in this book they likely wouldn’t have to deal with as much in 2018 — Sanchez’s novel was published back in 2001 — closeted gay teens still have fears of what will happen to them when they tell their friends and family they’re gay, and so this novel will resonate with any young gay person who reads it.
The other major theme of this novel is family, as it has been in most of the gay young adult novels, but to a more specific extent in Rainbow Boys, the dynamic between father and sons. One detriment to this book is the lack of development to the female characters, as when it comes to the parents, Sanchez is more interested in the father characters than the mother ones. All three teen characters have complex and contentious relationships with their fathers. Nelson’s father left long ago, and Nelson’s yearning to reunite with him plays a big role in the narrative. Jason has a homophobic, alcoholic father who is the most rotten character in the book and who shows no mercy to Jason when he comes out to him. Kyle’s father doesn’t understand homosexuality, but he, unlike the other two fathers, has a major arc over the course of the novel by going from sometimes homophobic and rude to his boy — after Kyle comes out to him, his first words are “‘Nelson got you mixed up in this, didn’t he?’” — to being open to his son’s sexuality and even willing to join a parent organization that discusses LGBT issues. Instead of having all three fathers go from bad to good in the end, Sanchez truthfully shows one deal with his son’s homosexuality in a thoughtful way and the other two deal with it in more damaging ways.
Rainbow Boys is an absorbing young adult novel that works as the perfect antithesis to Boy Meets Boy. While Boy Meets Boy is a beautiful love story in the kind of accepting world we all still hope to find, Rainbow Boys is a more grim and realistic novel that shows the aches and pains gay teens have to go through to find acceptance with their friends and family. Despite being more realistic, though, it has the same level of romanticism. None of the three characters hates that he is gay; from the first page on, they all want to find love, and by the end, they do. Jason and Kyle share plenty of tender moments together, and Nelson, who is treated the worst of the main trio, finds a boy in support group who wants to be with him. Jason, Kyle, and Nelson are all on the precipice of adulthood, and being true to themselves despite the animosity surrounding them makes their triumphs at the end of the novel all the more powerful.
Sanchez has a simplistic prose style similar to David Levithan and Benjamin Alire Saenz in that he only uses as many words as he needs to tell his story. For example, Sanchez tells us in two brief, lovely sentences what Jason is thinking when he has sex with his girlfriend: “He ran his fingers through her hair, feeling like he was about to burst […] he watched her through the blur of half-closed eyes, then suddenly it was no longer Debra but Kyle, her red hair transformed into Kyle’s cap.” Except for the occasional instances where Sanchez tells too much when he should be showing, he allows his characters to interact in ways that always feel true-to-life and natural. The dialogue rings true — at one point Nelson tells Kyle, “‘I get bashed every day for being queer, and I haven’t even kissed a guy yet […] that’s pretty pathetic’” — and the events that happen over the course of the narrative feel earned, never forced.
The point-of-view that Sanchez uses is fascinating because instead of telling the whole story just for one of the three boys’ perspectives, he alternates every chapter to a different perspective, albeit in the third person. Therefore, he will include a scene of Jason’s perspective on kissing Kyle for the first time, and then the beginning of the next chapter will show Kyle’s response to that kiss. Even though Nelson’s storyline sometimes exists outside of Jason’s and Kyle’s, Sanchez always masterfully weaves the three storylines into one cohesive whole.
Lastly, I love how honest Sanchez is with important LGBT issues that are hardly mentioned or discussed elsewhere in my annotated bibliography. This is the only gay young adult title that delves into HIV issues, with Nelson terrified that he might have contracted it after having unprotected sex with a guy he hooks up with. At one point he says, “‘What if I got it, my first time with a guy […] I don’t want to die.” This quote shows that Sanchez doesn’t shy away from tough issues in this book, especially when it comes to sex. On that same note, Sanchez actually shows all three of his teenage characters have sex, while, for example, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe only shows the two main characters kissing. High school seniors, gay and straight, are having sex, so it’s commendable that Sanchez, in a young adult novel that has the possibility of being contested by librarians and booksellers for “questionable” material, takes his characters to places rarely shown in gay books written for younger readers.