Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow is a superb debut from Benjamin Dean. We are all the main characters of our own stories. It’s a fairly trite phrase, but psychologically it makes sense. We see the world from our own perspectives, and thus everything is understood in regard to how it affects us. Most books tow this line, with the protagonist being at the centre of the action. However, as much as we star in our own unfolding tales, we also flit in and out of supporting roles in the existences of others. It is in choosing to reflect this latter reality that Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow makes its most interesting decision.
The debut novel by showbiz journalist Benjamin Dean, Rainbow focuses on 12-year-old Archie Albright. The thing is, it isn’t really Archie’s story; it’s his dad’s. You see, Kevin Albright has come out as gay after a more than decade-long marriage. For most books, it is on this emotional journey that the action would centre, how does this father, this husband, this man, deal with the implications of this revelation? While we do get glimpses of this more central narrative, the focus lies on Archie and how he reacts to what is his father’s life-changing moment. As a narrative device, this shifting of the lens onto a supporting character is an unusual one but, by doing it, Dean allows for a deeper analysis of relationships and empathy than might otherwise be possible.
In short, the story sees Archie struggle to reconcile his new knowledge about his father with how he has always related to him in the past. In an attempt to bridge this growing gap, he decides to run away to London to attend Pride, hoping to find the key to unlock what he sees as a mystery. He drags his two best friends along for the journey, and, inevitably, hijinks ensue. We also get snippets of how other people react to Kevin’s news, his wife, his friends and also those of Archie. However, there is always the feeling that the deepest drama is happening off-page.
This would be an interesting book to look at in the classroom, as a great way to inspire writing could be to have children choose a story – either an existing favourite or an invented one – but then shift the lens of focus to a peripheral figure.
There are, of course, other reasons to use this book in school. The key among them is to start discussions around LGBT+ identity and issues. Interestingly, it’s not a book about struggling with your own identity – Archie’s sexuality is never a factor or discussion in any way – but rather about acceptance of others and the idea that a person is not wholly defined by who they love but that rather this makes up just one part of their wider, fuller person.
Over recent years there has been a flurry of middle-grade texts dealing with diversity in its various forms, although the Reflecting Realities report shows there is still a very long way to go. There seem to be two approaches that can be taken within these books. In the first, with those such as A Kind of Spark, ‘difference’ is a character trait rather than a narrative device. The story could still unfold without the diversity element, which adds depth and complexity to the narrative rather than pushing it along. The second type, which Rainbow falls into, has the diversity aspect, in this case being gay, as the seed of the action, the story could not grow without it, and sometimes story has to come secondary to message. The latter model is not lesser than the former (it could even be easier to use these books to stimulate discussions with younger children), but it can lack subtlety, seeming rather on-the-nose with its admirable and important agenda. This is most evident in Rainbow when Archie first encounters the LGBT acronym. It is explained to him by a character in the story. Still, by delivering all this information in one big explosion of exposition, rather than weaving it into and throughout the narrative, it feels a bit stilted.
The writing of Archie himself is also worth unpicking. Throughout the book, it is emphasised that he is unremarkable; he is described as ‘average’ at school, unathletic and that he generally avoids thinking because it makes his headache. Dean may have been trying to make the character as relatable as possible and, by not standing out, Archie does become a real everyman. However, it leaves the reader feeling that Archie is incredibly insecure (much of what is listed above is self-description), even aside from his wobble after his father’s news. This tendency towards self-doubt is not really dealt with in the book, and I do think a conversation would need to be had with children about the importance of self-belief, as Archie does actually achieve a lot despite his self-deprecation.
There are other issues nodded at by the book that would need unpicking by a teacher. I’m particularly thinking of the racism revealed by the fact Archie’s grandparents did not attend his parents’ wedding because his father is black. Equally, the fact Kevin’s friends walked out on him after telling them the truth is the only time the idea of homophobia is touched upon. These issues are mentioned but then left hanging. In the classroom, they would probably need further exploration.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow is a very dialogue-heavy book, with many scenes relying on the rat-a-tat exchanges between Archie and his two best friends. Often books in this vein fall into an Aaron-Sorkin-style of ‘clever people saying clever things’; this makes them witty and quotable but not entirely believable as real-life exchanges. Dean takes Rainbow a different way, with his characters dialogue feeling more natural for young children, peppered with mixed metaphors and jokes that sort of bob there lazily like half-inflated balloons. This could be a good teachable point around informality and naturalism in dialogue. This is somewhat linked to how the book quietly experiments with form, at one point shifting into being a script rather than prose and often employing lists within the text to relate character thoughts or to quickly relate story points. These are again aspects that could be valuable to study.
This is a very gentle story about nice people trying to do their best in unexpected circumstances; not only is there no villain to speak of, but nothing particularly bad happens outside of embarrassing parental arguments. However, this does not mean it is boring, it has a bouncy pace, and I do think children will find this book very engaging, thanks in part to its almost conspiratorial tone. It begins right from the first few pages, where Archie, as the narrator, asks children not to tell their parents they are reading the book (something that again might need to be discussed in the classroom) but then this ‘part of the gang’ feeling is carried throughout by the intimate, urgent and conversational style that does a good job of making the reader feel present in the moment.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow has an important role to play in schools around representation, and it also carries value as a study text thanks to some of its narrative devices. While there is nothing inappropriate for younger audiences, it most comfortably fits in upper key stage two.
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