Hartinger, Brent. 2003. Geography Club. New York, NY: HarperTempest. ISBN 0060012218.
Russel is a sophomore in high school who feels like he is the only gay guy in town. No one knows he is gay and the only place he can be himself is in gay chat rooms, until he meets someone from his school who is also gay. When they meet Russel is surprised that the person is Kevin, a popular baseball player. Russel shares everything with his friend, Min, and learns that she is bisexual. The three get together with two other gay students and decide to form a club so that they can get together to talk. They call it Geography Club with the hope that no one else will be interested in joining. Russel and Kevin begin a secret relationship, but Russel faces many situations that force him to be true to himself and separate from Kevin and popularity. Russel instead becomes friends with the school loser, who protects Russel's identity, and they form a real gay-straight-bisexual alliance.
Although a large portion of the book deals with Russel being gay, the theme that stands out is teens trying to fit in and be accepted by peers. This is a topic all teens can relate to, and Hartinger truly presents it well in his realistic portrayal of high school life. Hatinger's writing style makes it feel like Russel is real and is talking to the reader in person. At times Russel even teases the reader. After kissing Kevin he says, "As for what happened that night with Kevin at the stinky picnic gazebo, that's none of your damn business. But I suppose I should tell you anyway. If I was reading this and I didn't tell me what happened, I'd be pissed."
Themes appear in the book that can be considered to be cultural markers. One is the need for gay students to hide their identity and pretend they are straight. Another is the need to always lie in order to protect themselves. The feeling of being alone and isolated is another theme. Feeling uncomfortable around others is also a theme. The use of words that are derogatory towards gays is presented as well. After the characters get to know Belinda, a straight student who wants to join the Geography Club, they discover that these themes are common to others who are keeping secrets and trying to fit in.
Russel tries to act like a normal, straight guy and is always aware of what he says and does. After getting to know everyone in the Geography Club he finds that this is true for everyone in the group. They have never told their family or closest friends about their sexuality, and are afraid they will not be accepted if they do open up. Anything that is done that would ruin the secret must be done in private. Min and her girlfriend rarely talk to each other at school and meet in an old warehouse in order to spend time with each other. Min lies about where she is and tells her parents she is a volunteer at the YMCA.
In order to keep his being gay a secret Russel does things he does not want to do. When his friend Gunnar sets him up on a date he agrees to go along with it. He puts up with the girl on the double dates, even allowing her to kiss him. When she accuses him of being gay since he will not have sex with her, Russel tells her he is a virgin and wants the first time to be special. Russel is extremely uncomfortable in these situations and dislikes the kissing, but puts up with it for the sake of his friend.
Since Russel must hide who he really is he feels alone and isolated. The only time he can be honest about himself is when he is online with people he does not really know. When he meets with the Geography Club he discovers that everyone feels the same way. Ike admits that he even tried to kill himself once. The club finds that they can open up to each other in ways they never have been able to before. After talking about the suicide Ike says, "I never told anyone that before. I never even told my therapist."
Some situations can be really uncomfortable for Russel. When the book begins he is in the boy's locker room after gym class. Russel says, "For the time being, my disguise was holding, but still I felt exposed, naked, as if my secret was obvious to anyone who took the time to look. I knew that any wrong action, however slight, could expose my deception and reveal my true identity. The thought made my skin prickle." Kevin also fills uncomfortable in similar situations, but acts like a jerk towards others to get the attention away from himself and not let anyone question his status as a popular jock.
The appropriate and inappropriate phrases to use for gay individuals are incorporated into the story. When Russel tells Kevin about Min and her girlfriend, Terese, Kevin calls Min a lesbo and Terese a dyke, even though Russel tells him that Min likes to be called bisexual. Russel says to himself, "I never knew what to say when someone said stuff like this. It was one thing to think it. It was another thing to say it out loud." Later on, when he goes on a double date to a movie one of the girls says the movie was gay. Russel says to himself, "She meant it sucked, and I hope it goes without saying that I was totally offended by this."
A positive aspect of the book is that readers realize that anyone can be gay. Russel and Min are smart, while Terese and Kevin are athletes and Ike is a lefty activist. It seems like the only reason everyone does not realize there are gay individuals in every clique is that the gay students have learned to fit in. Brian, the school loser that everyone assumes is gay, is really straight, but he is used to being picked on and is not afraid to pretend to be gay to protect Russel's identity.
"While the plot is sometimes bundled together rather than carefully woven, this is a lively and compelling story. There's heart-palpitating romance in Russel's reciprocated attraction to Kevin and their budding relationship, and there's plenty of humor in the witty writing and unexpected events." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"What gives it distinction is Russel's pointed narration, pitch-perfect as the slightly superior, world-weary, and ironic gay boy who you know will make a grand success of himself once he manages to get past adolescence....Yet his agonies of ostracism (and first love) are truly conveyed--in all, this is the most artful and authentic depiction of a gay teen since M. E. Kerr's groundbreaking Charlie Gilhooly in I'll Love You When You're More Like Me. -Horn Book
Introduce the sequels to Geography Club, The Order of the Poison Oak and Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies.
Use the discussion questions and suggested class projects for Geography Club that are listed on Hartinger's web site at http://www.brenthartinger.com/discussionggeoclub.html.