Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
People changed their hair and dieted themselves down to near death. They took steroids to build muscles and got breast implants and nose jobs so they resemble their favorite movie stars. They changed names and majors and jobs and husbands and wives. They changed religions and political parties. They move across the country or the world -- even changed nationalities. Why was gender the one sacred thing we weren’t supposed to change? Who made that rule?
There are a lot of groups that are under-represented in children’s and young adult literature. The most obvious is minorities of all races, all colors and all religions. I’m sure if aliens landed on Earth tomorrow and hit the local Barnes & Noble kid’s section they would think from what they found there that we are all straight white people with varying degrees of income, social problems and church-going habits. Unless of course they thought we were all wizards, elves or vampires.
I am constantly looking for YA books to review that include an African American, Asian American or Latin American character -- they don’t even have to be the protagonists, they just have to be there. Books with gay teens are a rare bird and books that move even further outside that box, like a book about a transgender teen, well, that is a flat out near impossibility.
We are talking the rarest of the rare here in literary terms: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the publishing world.
So when I read the Booklist review of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish I was fairly stunned. This book, about a female high school student who is tired of pretending to be a happy girl and cuts her hair, changes her name, and now seeks to be accepted by everyone as the boy she knows herself to truly be, is an absolute revelation. There is nothing overly dramatic here -- no parents that throw their child out, no physical attacks from fellow students or teachers who expel Grady after his transformation from Angela. This might seem a bit strange for those who expect chaos from such a decision. In fact Booklist reviewer Michael Cart noted, “To her credit, Wittlinger has managed to avoid the operatic (no blood is shed, no lives are threatened) but some readers may wonder if -- in so doing -- she has made things a bit too easy for Grady,” but I thought that what Wittlinger decided to do with this story was fitting. There is indeed some high school trauma from other kids and it is not at all a walk in the park for Grady, but the bigger story is not what everyone else thinks but what Grady thinks; how Angela manages to come up with the idea and then how, as Grady, he weathers the storm of that decision. By throwing in the struggle of Eve, who was Angela’s best friend until recently, you see how hard it can be for the average teenager to stand up to peer pressure when it comes to brand names and hairstyles, let alone make such a dramatic personal decision about gender. How do you strike out this much on your own, how do you handle being this independent? It’s a big question for pretty much every teenager and because of that there is a huge audience for this book, which extends far beyond transgender kids.
At its heart, though, Parrotfish is all about one girl who is tired of trying to be “normal” and her quest to redefine just what that word means. Angela is so brave and smart and determined that it would be easy to turn her, in her new incarnation as Grady, into some kind of transgender sacrifice who risks all to prove a point. But Grady also wants a damn life -- a good life -- and would like to have all the teenage moments that those John Hughes movies promised us two and half decades ago. It comes as a shock to him, though, when some of his classmates do accept his decision and become friends; it’s even odder when you consider that these people were only acquaintances before Angela’s transformation. It is as Grady, newly empowered and struggling towards confidence, that others, both popular and not, feel compelled to reach out. Of course there are the ones who are mean for no other reason than to be mean (what happens to these people after school is what I want to know) and navigating their cruelty is almost more than Grady can bear. But with the new friends in his corner and his family reaching toward their own differing degrees of acceptance (some moving faster than others), he is able to make it. By the end of the book, Grady has triumphed in more ways than one and readers will likely be transformed on at least some small scale by all he has accomplished.
I don’t want to suggest that Parrotfish comes across as after school special or, even worse, a “very special” Lifetime movie. Wittlinger has written an extremely compelling story here and readers will be hard pressed to tear themselves away from Grady’s life. It’s amazing to imagine a teenager being able to pull this off: to just change her name, change her style of dress, and walk into the high school administrative offices and announce that from now on she wants to be addressed by a new name and be accepted as a new gender. And yet what choice does this kid have? But springing that on everyone else, who have been perfectly happy to dismiss her as a lesbian, or a freak, or just weird, is not what commonly happens. Usually the kid in question just swallows hard and does what everyone expects. Actually, that’s what most of us do, regardless of our own internal desire to break out of family or professional or social boxes. And that common impulse, not to be different, is what makes me think that Wittlinger could be looking at a huge audience for Parrotfish; an audience of readers who all need a dose of Grady’s courage.
Ultimately, though, I really hope that many transgender teens find their way to this book. There is so little to guide them out there (Wittlinger includes a list of web sites, books and organizations in the endnotes), and I am sure that Grady’s story would give them a great deal of hope. It will let them know that you can be okay; you can be who you want to be -- who you know yourself to be -- and you can be okay. That’s the kind of story that more young adults book should share, and for addressing it in such a winning way at this particular group of kids Ellen Wittlinger has a lot to be proud of.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Simon & Schuster