by Paul Ruditis
YA fiction. 248 pp.
Simon & Schuster. 2005.
So a month or so ago, I read an article in the NYTimes ("Are These Parties for Real?" 6/30/05) about this controversial young adult book. It was so controversial, that bookstores weren't even carrying it; you had to order it specially. So naturally, I had to read it. Now I'm going to review it for you. And my review is going to have full spoilers. I figure, most people won't read this book anyway, though I think it is probably one of the more important books a parent can read with his or her teenager.
First, to give you some background, this is from the Washington Post (6/24/05):
"To offer some parental guidance in this fast-changing arena, Weekend Journal sorted through more than 100 of the season's talked-about teen titles. We kept our eye out for literary merit and great stories, and also looked for themes that parents might want to know about. One discovery: The subject matter is rarely clear from a book's title or graphics. "Rainbow Party" features tubes of lipstick on the cover -- though it isn't about girls discussing makeup, but a teen oral-sex party. We also found that girls are the main target audience here, reflecting publishers' belief that more teen girls than boys read. (The idea is that boys stick to fantasy epics.) That helps explain why there are more controversial girl-oriented titles, like "Alice on Her Way," about a 16-year-old who spends a weekend in Manhattan on a class trip.
"Publishers say the mature material simply reflects the culture teens are exposed to today, and may help them to process situations they've heard about or experienced. In some cases, they add, the themes help advance a moral message: "Rainbow Party," for example, teaches children about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, says Rick Richter, president of Simon & Schuster's children's division, which published the title. He adds that he'd be happy to have his 13-year-old daughter read it."
"RAINBOW PARTY By Paul Ruditis
Simon Pulse, 248 pages, $12.99, in stores
The Plot: A promiscuous high-school sophomore plans an oral sex party.
The Buzz: One of the summer's most contentious teen titles, though some librarians say it could spur parent-child discussions. "He brought to the surface a pretty serious problem in many communities that no one wants to talk about," says Pam Spencer Holley, a retired librarian in Hallwood, Va. The author's name may be familiar: He's written books based on TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Queer as Folk."
Reviewer's Take: Sex scenes between boys and girls, and boys and boys, made our 40-year-old reviewer feel squeamish.
Parental Guidance: Simon & Schuster says this is for children 14 and older. We suggest parents read it first.
So that gives you the skinny on the book. Girl throws oral sex party. In the end the party doesn't happen. To be perfectly honest, I don't know why the WaPo reviewer got squirmish. Was it that a girl would dare throw this kind of party? Was it that some of the teens in the book are portrayed as sexually active? Was it the introduction to Perry when he's just finished sucking off his friend Hunter (for the 47th time--he keeps track, because Hunter owes him one but has yet to deliver) in the boys bathroom at school? Who knows?
Maybe I'm cold and heartless. But, to be honest, there is so much going on in this book, that I think it's a mistake for parents and critics to focus on the idea of a "rainbow party." And that seems to be the main concern. For example, as reported in the NYTimes: "Michelle Malkin, a syndicated columnist, found the book appalling. "Why on earth would a publisher market such smut to kids?" she asked. Ms. Malkin was heartened by the many children's booksellers not stocking 'Rainbow Party.' But she worries that it could nonetheless end up on school library shelves in the name of helping children 'deal with reality.'" Ms. Malkin needs to get off her high horse and look at what the book is actually saying. So here's the blow by blow (Hmm, maybe I should use a different phrase there. Or not.) on each of the characters.
- Gin. She's the one throwing the party. She gets around. She's blown most of the guys in the school. We don't really know why she feels compelled to have this party, but she does anyway. In the end, the party doesn't happen, partly because most everyone is a no-show, but also because her dad happens to get home from work early. Of course, she doesn't get in trouble for the party until a week or two later when suddenly everyone's going in and getting tested for the gonnorhea outbreak at the school. And everyone then assumes she's a harlot, which she is, even though she gets gets that monicker for a party she never even had.
- Sandy. She's Gin's best friend. She's a bit naive. She doesn't want to go to the party, but Gin is insistent. The party fairly well destroys her friendship with Gin, even though we find out on the last page that Gin had invited one boy in particular because Sandy likes him and Gin thinks they'd actually be a good couple. Personally, that's a pretty twisted way to set up your friend. But there's no accounting for teenage girl logic.
- Hunter. Hunter gets around. He probably gets around as much as Gin. At the end of the novel, Gin runs into him at the Spring Fling:
"Oh, look. There's patient zero now.
"Gin had no proof that Hunter had been the one to start the spread of gonorrhea through the sophomore class, but she just had this feeling. Of course, he had been the one to sound the alarm, which made him some kind of hero, while Gin was relegated to town slut."
The author hits an interesting and powerful social commentary in regards to Hunter and Gin. As Gin says while waiting for everyone to show up:
"Like there's some explanation that will make you understand why I do what I do. Well, that's all there is. I like it. I like fooling around with guys. It's fun. It's no different from what Hunter does. But all the guys want to be his friend, while none of the girls want to be mine."
As a culture, we do have a double standard in terms of sexual expectations of our boys and our girls. A boy who gets around is a stud; a girl, a harlot.
- Perry. Is Perry gay or not? We don't know. We do know that he gives Hunter blow jobs. Often. They're best friends, and they were just fooling around one day, and well, forty-seven times later . . . He doesn't want to go to the party, but Hunter insisted on Gin inviting him. We first get indications that there's a gonorrhea outbreak from his perspective--he has a sore throat he can't get rid of. Later, we learn that Hunter has some uncomfortable pain urinating and Gin also has a sore throat. There's really not much to say about Perry. I feel for him. He doesn't really know who he is. And, in the end, Gin speculates that he's probably the true hero in quelling the gonorrhea outbreak as he probably realized it first and then made Hunter send out the e-mail.
- Jade. Jade's invited to the party, but she doesn't want to go. All the guys want her. Apparently she's the hottest girl at school. But she keeps her dating life to herself. Come to find out, she has a boyfriend at another school. She's saving her virginity for him. Which apparently she gives him on the night of all cliches, his junior prom.
- Skye and Rod. They're apparently quite the sexually active couple. She does it to keep him. He still screws around with other girls. But he's smart--he screws around with girls from other schools so she won't find out. Prior to the party, because she's rather sketchy about going, but she's doing it for him, he goes down on her in parents' bedroom. This is the first time he's done it because she's the one who always gets to do the work. Anyway, she fakes it, until he actually hits the spot for her. Of course, just at that moment, her brother and little sister come home. Unexpectedly. Mom finds out and decides to rush home from work. Rod ditches Skye to face her mom on her own. She realizes that she doesn't love him and doesn't want to date him anymore. Which is good since he makes a pass at her best friend as he's leaving her house.
- Vi. Skye's best friend. All she wants is to stop being the third wheel. Of course, the boyfriend she wants happens to be Rod. She's only going to the party because Skye is going and because she'll get to fool around a bit with Rod. But when he makes a pass at her when leaving Skye's house, Vi realizes what a pig he is. She says no.
- Rusty. Rusty once got oral from Gin. But he's played it up to garner the reputation of being a player. Of course, he's realizing that he needs to get some more action or he'll lose his rep. He also has another concern. He's not so well endowed. He's hoping that part of puberty just hasn't hit him yet. But that insecurity is what makes him more aggressive in promoting his own rep and in belittling Brick as a virgin. He and Brick don't end up at the party because, well, they don't know where Gin actually lives. But this is better for him anyway as a girl happened to be flirting with him just prior to when they took off for the party.
- Brick. He doesn't really want to go to the party. Yes, he's bugged that everyone gives him grief about being a virgin, but he also doesn't see what the big deal about it is. He's extremely relieved when they don't know how to get to the party. And he resolves the peer pressure issue by joining the celibacy club and dating its president. Might as well face it head-on.
- Ash and Rose. This is the class couple. They've been dating for a year and a half. Everyone assumes they're doing "it," but they've never had sex. Never even really fooled around. On the day of the party, Ash realizes that he's actually in love with Rose. But he doesn't feel like he can tell her that because the timing seems bad, what with the party and all. He's only going to the party because he thinks Rose wants to. She's only going to the party because she thinks he wants to. They never really talk about this until it's time to go. They end up not going. And in the end, they decide to correct people's perceptions about their sex life.
- Allison. President of the Celibacy Club. She obviously wasn't invited. She's a rather minor character. In fact, she only becomes important because of what happen to the health teacher. The teacher happened to be rather open about discussing sex and its issues in her classroom. Until Allison brought up some of the points in the club meeting--for discussion purposes only--and the faculty advisor of the club throws a fit and has the district impose a celibacy-only curriculum. The health teacher complies. Then, three weeks later, under protest, especially in light of the gonorrhea outbreak, she resigns.
Anyway, I think this book hits a lot of important issues regarding teens and sexual behavior. It should be read. It should be read by teens and their parents. Preferably as a launching point into a discussion about the real issues with premarital sex.
I'm a firm believer in the importance of young adult literature because it provides a safe space for teens to experience life vicariously through others. So, yes, Ms. Malkin, this book should be available on library shelves to teens to help them deal with reality. Not everyone is having sex, but teens don't know that. The only ones who are visually not having sex are those in the celibacy club, and they're stigmatized. No amount of adult praise is going to change that. So teens need to see other teens dealing with issues and insecurities about sex. They need to see the consequences. Books are the best place for that.