Author: Ellen Wittlinger
Genre: YA LGBT Fiction
Summary (from Goodreads)
Angela Katz-McNair has never felt quite right as a girl, but it’s a shock to everyone when she cuts her hair short, buys some men’s clothes, and announces she’d like to be called by a new name, Grady. Although Grady is happy about his decision to finally be true to himself, everybody else is having trouble processing the news. Grady’s parents act hurt; his sister is mortified; and his best friend, Eve, won’t acknowledge his existence. On top of that, there are more practical concerns–for instance, which locker room is he supposed to use for gym class? Grady didn’t expect his family and friends to be happy about his decision, but he also didn’t expect kids at school to be downright nasty about it. But as the victim of some cruel jokes, Grady also finds unexpected allies, including the school geek Sebastian, and Kita Charles, who’s a gorgeous senior.
Having never read a book that focuses on a transgender character, I was interested to see what I could learn from Parrotfish. I’ve always believed that books that explore issues faced by people who are different to others – in whatever that shape may take – are hugely important resources, promoting empathy and understanding.
Which is why I was almost a little disappointed that Parrotfish didn’t delve further into what it means to be Transgender. The novel starts with Angela coming out as Grady, and in many ways it isn’t that much different to a gay or lesbian ‘coming out’ – Grady faces discrimination, he fears how people will react, questions what his future, particularly his love life might hold. There are triumphs and pitfalls, and much is learnt about who Grady is, who his family are and what it means to be a real friend. There is some stuff about what the complications of being non-binary gender involve, like trying to get unwilling teachers to use Grady’s new name, questioning which PE line to be in and what bathroom to use – which were real eye openers into the day to day difficulties faced by transgendered teens.
But what was lacking for me was a depth of understanding of what was going on inside Grady’s head, particularly relating to his decision that he was male, not female. I guess I was looking for a Bell Jar, or Curious Incident-esque tour inside someone else’s head, giving me that insight into a mind that doesn’t function as mine does, allowing that connection of deeper understanding. What I got was a slightly fluffy, very much younger YA novel about a teen who happens to be transgendered, and what that means for them in life and love.
And don’t get me wrong, those sorts of books are important to. If straight kids can have light, fluffy romances, then so too should transgendered kids. I just felt like there was so much more that could have been done with the premise, especially given the lack of books about transgender characters out there. But that’s much to do with my expectation and what I wanted to get out of it, and not necessarily reflective of what other people will want.
More on the writing quality side of things, I thought Kita was a pretty horrendous love interest – yes she’s attractive, but what else did she have going for her? She was pretty obnoxious a lot of the time, and her berating Danya towards the end sat a little uncomfortably with me. I wanted Grady to go and find Danya and extend the hand of friendship, but because Danya had been horrible, it seemed to be acceptable that others were horrible to her.
So, a book with a few problems, but as a pathway for younger readers into exploring what it is to be transgender, I think it’s pretty good. Not too heavy and emotional, but with enough rumination on Grady’s feelings and struggles to give younger teen readers an insight, which will hopefully promote empathy and prompt them to move on to tackle more complex and challenging works featuring transgender characters. I, for one, would be delighted to take some recommendations on such works, if anybody has any!