Two high school sophomores plan a party. It's called a rainbow party because the party theme is oral sex, in which the girls each wear a different colored lipstick and the boys, by evening's end, sport a chromatic spectrum. In Paul Ruditis's YA novel Rainbow Party, the invited teens have major reservations, the event never happens and news of an STD breakout sends shockwaves through the school.
While Simon Pulse, the publisher, is positioning the June title as a cautionary tale about a troubling trend in teendom, booksellers are not buying it. "The chains are not taking the book," said Tracy van Straaten, executive director of publicity for S&S Children's Publishing. B&N's Carolyn Brown confirmed that the book could only be ordered online or special ordered, while Borders declined to comment.
In an era in which children's publishers pride themselves on doing teen books that deal openly with subjects such as incest, cutting and drug abuse—and, not incidentally, in a business that trumpets the right to free speech—it's striking that Rainbow Party has inspired such objections.
S&S was aware early on that it had a provocative book on its hands. In fact, the bound galleys carried the tagline, "don't you want to know what really goes down?" While booksellers reacted negatively to the line, van Straaten said S&S ultimately removed it because "we wanted to avoid misrepresenting the book as something it's not."
Rick Richter, president of S&S's children's division, said he'd like to say that booksellers "boycotted" the book, then decided that might be too dramatic a word. "We will have to see, but the marketplace might be applying the rule of censorship to this title," he said.
Chain stores are not the only ones passing on Rainbow Party. An independent bookseller wrote to Richter, expressing disappointment in the company for publishing such a book. "I responded that we count on them to select what's right for them and applaud them for doing so," said Richter, who defends the book's frank assessment of a real issue among teens. "Rainbow Party covers a topic that not a lot of people want to talk about, never mind read about. But the book shows readers that thinking oral sex is not sex is the wrong approach to looking at the issue."
For children's booksellers—who are not unfamiliar with the challenge of handling edgy books for an underage market— reasons for not buying the book are varied. Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., said, "If we were a general store, I might try it but because we're a children's-only store, for it to be on our shelves constitutes an endorsement." Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex, said, "I don't deny that this kind of thing is part of reality, but I know the parents [who shop in the bookstore] are not ready for these kinds of books. We have to try and keep it clean here because fully more than half of the store is kids' books." A West Coast bookseller contacted for the article said she wasn't buying the book for her store and could only groan her disapproval when asked why.
Lisa Dugan, children's buyer for Koen Books Distributors, is buying one box of the books (44 copies) for her customers. "I know someone will want to buy it because it's sensational," she said. "But I don't expect to sell very much of it."
Some booksellers claim that it's not the subject that turns them off so much as the way it has been presented. "It's clear that the appeal is strictly sensational," said Chittenden at Eight Cousins. "If they wanted to include that content in a more literary book, that would be another matter." Blue Willow's Koehler agreed, saying, "There are some great teen books with sex in them, but the sex is part of the story line. It's not gratuitous, it just flows with the story."
The book's author, Paul Ruditis, wishes that booksellers and readers could value the book for what it can do: start a discussion. "Part of me doesn't understand why people don't want to talk about [oral sex]," he said. "Kids are having sex and they are actively engaged in oral sex and think it's not really sex. I raised questions in my book and I hope that parents and children or teachers and students can open a topic of conversation through it. Rainbow parties are such an interesting topic. It's such a childlike way to look at such an adult subject—with rainbow colors."
With so many booksellers saying they won't be stocking the book, S&S may well have some bottom-line worries. The announced first printing for the paperback original was 30,000, but van Straaten said that S&S will be printing substantially fewer. Nevertheless, Richter said "We don't think we'll lose money on it."
Which of course remains to be seen. But with all the promises the book appears to make about its content, and its still-provocative cover, will readers be disappointed when they finish it only to find that the party doesn't actually take place? According to Richter, just the opposite may be true: "I think readers will probably be relieved," he said. The point may be moot, however, if the "party" is effectively canceled on account of booksellers.