YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
A few months ago, I was observing a librarian at the teen reference desk (I’m in library school, so it’s not like I was just standing there being creepy), when I got my dream reference question. A kid walked up, kinda nervous, looked at the librarian, looked at me and said,
“Can you help me find this book, I mean, it’s not in this section but I think you have it.”
“It’s called, Just Add Hormones.”
I’d heard of that book and knew enough to know this kid was searching for information about trans stuff.
The librarian looked it up, but it was checked out. I wanted to spring to action, offer to show the teen the section where it would be found only after slipping the perfect teen book into their hand—without missing a beat—and say something subtle like, “you’ll love this, it’s one of my favorites,” something to indicate that I was a safe adult who knew about trans stuff without calling attention to this teen or their reference question.
What happened in reality, though, was that I stumbled a little, tried to make eye contact and mumbled, “I’ve heard that book is good,” (I actually hadn’t heard anything about the book other than that it was a trans book, but I figured that the teen probably came to the teen reference desk to ask for an obviously adultnon-fiction book because they saw me, suspected I might be trans and wanted to gauge my reaction—at least that’s what I would have done if I was a teen and found a trans adult). I was just observing, so it wasn’t my reference question and not my place to intrude, but that is not why I didn’t respond to this dream reference question with lightening speed, precision and a fresh trans Young Adult (YA) title.
The reason I didn’t respond with the perfect trans teen book was that it occurred to me in that moment that I had never read such a book and had only ever head of one! When I set out to come up with a good list of titles so as not to screw it up next time a trans teen came asking for help, I had a hard time finding any books. I found maybe 5 titles initially and the list now stands at 16 titles which can be found/added to here. I cannot vouch for the quality of these titles, as I have not read them all yet and actually suspect that at least half of them are bad. As in, actively bad. But I have to count them for something because, as far as I can tell, good or bad, the titles on this measly—but hopefully growing—list equal the entire cannon of trans YA literature.
So I started reading them in a somewhat random order based on what was checked in at my library. First up was Parrotfish, by Ellen Wittlinger.
While reading Parrotfish, I expected to either feel overwhelmed with emotion about how amazing the book was or, more likely, feel irritated with it for regurgitating the same old traditional narrative in a kind of offensive way that doesn’t totally get it. About halfway in, though, I realized that it did neither of those things for me.
The book was not actively bad.
Wittlinger clearly did some good research, much of which is inserted into the book through the bookish best-friend sidekick character, Sebastian, who seems to serve as the teenage voice of Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein. In fact, I did not see the reference section she includes until I finished the book, but found myself doing double-takes at various points when Sebastian would say things to Grady which I could swear I remembered from Gender Outlaw, My Gender Workbook, or TransGender Warriors. I actually loved Sebastian as a character and appreciated the way she offered him as something of an entry point into non-fiction texts such as Bornstein or Feinberg which were such helpful resources to me when I was 19 and coming out as trans.
I expected to either feel overwhelmed with emotion about how amazing the book was or feel irritated with it for regurgitating the same old traditional narrative. About halfway in, though, I realized that it did neither of those things.
Just as Sebastian acts as the entry point into modern transgender theory, Kita, Grady’s love interest, acts as an entry point into feminism. Whenever other characters have a vague feeling that something doesn’t feel right, she is always the one who articulates what’s really going on—what I, as a feminist reader am thinking—and calls out misogyny and general male douchebaggery for what it is. I appreciated her presence in the book and, although she was a more minor character than Sebastian, I loved her.
A couple things about this book (beyond specific details mentioned above), bothered me, though.
First off, the whole book took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I don’t think I am giving away anything that wasn’t super predictable in saying that Grady’s whole school, family and larger community goes from bullying and humiliating him to loving, accepting and learning from him during the one month span of the book. That whole fairy tale aspect of the story reminded me a whole lot of Red Durkin’s response to the “It Gets Better Project” last year.
I actually felt like Grady’s feelings surrounding his friends and family’s resistance and eventual acceptance of his transition mirrored my own in a lot of ways, and I do applaud Wittlinger for finding some truth in that. But in spite of the fact that I feel privileged to have awesome, loving friends and family who accept me, it didn’t happen for me—or any trans person I have ever known—in a month. And in reality, I lost some people along the way, as did most trans people I know. My life did still get way better, but it wasn’t magic and it didn’t happen in a month. I understand the pull to write an ending that gives readers hope, but I somehow fear that the level of ridiculous involved in this fairy tale ending is more likely to depress and alienate readers who are having a more realistically long and difficult road to acceptance than Grady.
One of the themes Grady deals with, along with his male friends and family members, is the struggle with what it means to be a man. I actually appreciated the way Wittlinger delved into this subject in a way that I think both trans and cis boys/men could learn from and relate to. I really didn’t like the conclusion that everyone, including Grady and Kita, his feminist love interest, came to, which was that because Grady “used to be a girl,” he could never be a misogynistic douchebag. Wittlinger, instead, used Grady as the yardstick against which other men and boys should measure themselves, as if he was this perfect specimen of manhood. While I think that in an overly simplified way, teenaged cisgender male readers could benefit from the message she seeks to communicate—that there are a million was to be a man and that respecting women doesn’t make you less of a man—she kind of gives trans men/boys a free pass to not deal with male privilege and misogyny in their own lives by spitting out the old, tired rhetoric that is responsible for so much gross trans-man-purported-misogyny and trans-man-worship within queer and trans communities.
Realistically, this book provided just about the same stuff that I got from LiveJoural communities while I was first coming out as trans—with some added feelings of validation which spring from the fact that a major publisher decided this book was worth publishing, of course. Mind you, LiveJournal was an invaluable resource to me as a teen, and I have no doubt that this book will change the lives of the young adults who read it in the ways that LiveJournal changed mine. It’s just that, much like LiveJournal, she’s mixed positive messages right in there with mildly effed up ones.
Like I said, I’m glad Parrotfish exists and I don’t want to give off any impression otherwise. I would have even been happy to recommend it to the teen with the trans reference question. But now that this book exists, can we please get to the part where we start creating literature for trans teens that has things going for it that are slightly more rad than the fact of mere existence?
Up next: Luna by Julie Anne Peters—ask the cutest librarian at your public library to help you find it if you want to read along!