Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 28th 2013 by Arthur A. Levine Books
Format read: Finished copy via publisher
Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He's won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, oh yeah, he's gay. He's been out since 8th grade, and he isn't teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that's important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret--not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben..who doesn't even know that love is possible.
This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate being different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.
So when Scholastic offered me the opportunity to review the paperback release of Openly Straight, I was absolutely delighted. Librarian friends had been raving about the book for over a year to me, and it felt like it was the perfect time to pick up the book.
Things that work:
Rafe is possibly the most charming, lovable hero I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to over the past year.
He’s nonchalant, honest, funny and reflective, and we never have any doubt as to why he wants to explore what it means to not just be the gay student at his school.
However, Konigsberg also makes it very clear from the initial chapters that Rafe also in’t a stranger to screwing up. Even before his plan has really taken off, he’s already hurt his best friend at home. Even as the book progresses, and Rafe does begin to better understand what he’s trying to do, there are still byproducts, including a friendship that eventually is challenged by his decisions.
Without giving too many spoilers away, I think Rafe is beautifully flawed, funny and experiences growing pains in a completely wonderful, relatable way.
The relationship aspect
Konigsberg writes relationships exceptionally well, and – dare I say it – writes the family relationships and friendships that we all wish that we had.
I loved Rafe’s kooky, thoughtful parents, and how they went out of their way to support him and his choices, albeit not with some gentle ribbing on their part.
(I especially loved Rafe’s dad’s barely contained glee at realizing that his new son’s roommate was a bit on the messy slide, because let’s face it: my dad would have totally done the same to me.)
Beyond simply being a hoot to read and get to know, I think that having fictional relationships like these are important in YA literature. They’re a reminder that not everything teenage-related are full of angst! drama! anger!, and also an informal way for parents to know what their teens may think of them.
Konigsberg writes vivid, fleshed-out friendships, which all play an important part in Rafe’s self-discovery at his new school.
He does a wonderful job of showing the conscious decisions that Rafe takes to live a label-free life, and how that impacts his relationships (both positively and negatively) with his newfound soccer team friends, and his quirky roommate, and maintaining his friendship with his best friend from home.
While Rafe inevitably decides that some friends are worth spending more time with than others, Konigsberg is extremely careful to show that there’s no right friend or wrong friend, but more just an emphasis on people who let you be yourself.
It’s a subtle but very important lesson, one that I think that every teen will relate to, and should most definitely at least read.
On that note…
On interpersonal relationships
Guys. I can’t even begin to stress how much I love and appreciate Konigsberg handling of Ben and Rafe’s relationship.
He shows how they slowly evolve from being strangers into close friends, to the point where they realize that they have feelings for one another. There’s a poignant section where Rafe and Ben discuss their friendship, and Ben sagely uses the classical Greek term agape to define their relationship – as two people who have a genuine connection.
The fact that Konigsberg both confidently and effortlessly streamlines a very complex (yet oddly fundamental) idea on why love is love, full stop, into a book for teens is absolutely fantastic to me.
I can see so many of the teens that I work with not only appreciating, but understanding this, whether it’s in relation to their own lives, or to their friends.
On the importance of being yourself
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Rafe eventually comes to regret his decision to go without labels, Konigsberg does have him question just what he’s gained and potentially lost, from not being true to himself.
As his decision comes to a natural end, Konigsberg has Rafe reflect on how exhausting it can be to be defined by labels, but how it’s sometimes important to recognize that the labels and being categorized into boxes, can also inadvertently be our own making.
There’s no right or wrong answer to Rafe’s musings, and they open up a lot of great questions for readers to ask themselves on what defines them.
The ending is optimistic, thoughtful and leaves me with a lot of hope for Rafe and his future.
I’d love a sequel actually, but that’s just me being a greedy reader. I’ve simply become too invested in these characters to not want to let go of them just yet!
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
About the author:
Bill Konigsberg won the Lambda Literary Award for Young Adult fiction for OUT OF THE POCKET (Dutton, 2008). Before writing novels, he was a sportswriter for The Associated Press and ESPN.com. He won a GLAAD Media Award for a coming-out essay he wrote while working at ESPN.com, and he blogs at billkonigsberg.blogspot.com. Bill lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his partner, Chuck.