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YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Jack Radish

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.”

(pause)

“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!

Comments

  1. Claire

    You are not supposed to demonstrate that you are paying any attention to what they are requesting so that they don’t get nervous and feel that the library is not a safe space! Sample question they give you in ref class: if someone comes in and looks really upset and is asking for a particular volume of an encyclopedia and you seem them looking up all this stuff related to HIV/AIDS, do you tell them about resources that might be more helpful to them? Why or why not? Fucking fascinating discussion comes out of this!

    • Jack Radish

      yeah, that’s a good point. i think it would have been okay in this situation because the kid had just asked a pretty open ended readers advisory question (“i need a book” “what kind of book?” “i don’t care, a good one” “what kind of books do you like?” “everything,” you know) 10 minutes previously and then had been eyeing me since. i would never have said out loud “oh, so you want books about trans people” or even said the word “trans” or anything related, and i would never have looked over a kid’s shoulder to see what they were reading or anything though.

      but yeah, i mean it’s definitely important to be careful not to make people feel like they can’t ask the librarian questions in the first place. i think though, especially with teens, sometimes there are non-verbal cues that a kid is reaching out for more information and help and i got that from this kid. i’m sure that at least 50% of librarians would disagree with me on this, and i guess i’m a bit on the fence about it too, but i do know i could have helped the kid more and still go over in my head a bunch of different ways i could have handled that

  2. Julian Morrison

    http://www.lisalees.com/books/books.html#fool is good, the sequel is good too but the author is rewriting it and has de-listed it.

  3. Alex K.

    I think this is a great project! But at the same time, I’ve never really understood the value of YA fiction. Why can’t young adults read real books? Maybe I just want to make sure that we don’t only recommend teen books to teens. I haven’t gotten to Tango (http://justinbond.com/?p=705) yet, but maybe that would be a good choice.

    • Donna Liberty

      “Real books”? As opposed to the hallowed-out kind that holds flasks or pistols?

    • Young adult literature is composed of “real books”. To peg the two as diametrically opposed is false and an abiding myth. Another myth is that YA lit is a book that’s “dumbed down” to make it more digestible for the younger reader. In reality, YA lit often deals with controversial, divisive topics, and can be defined as discussing and examining themes that relate to the life of the adolescent and young adult—which, as we all know, is populated with real problems, conflict, and heartache, but is often painted as “less real” than adult life.

      • Alex K.

        I was not criticizing the books themselves so much as the label. To the extent that “YA lit often deals with controversial, divisive topics, and can be defined as discussing and examining themes that relate to the life of the adolescent and young adult” in a meaningful and sufficiently complex manner, why even label them YA?

        • Donna Liberty

          … because genres have names. That’s what a genre is. It’s a name, for a particular kind of book.

        • Because, as I said, they relate to young adult themes.

          • Alex K.

            I think it is because they are marketed to a young adult audience. And that makes it more likely that they will be over-simplified and condescending. The one month span of Parrotfish sound like a pretty good example of that.

            • You’re confusing two definitions of book genres. Books that fall into categories such as children’s lit are indeed simplified, because the audience they’re geared for cannot process books that are written at an adult reading level. They also include certain types of repetition, rhyme, and other methods to help develop children’s reading skills.

              Other genres, such as the ones that Donna described, simply describe thematic material. LGBT literature deals with LGBT characters and themes. YA literature deals with young adult characters and themes. Are the themes that young adults encounter not adult ones? No, absolutely not. YA novels can deal with death, adultery, avarice, deception, greed, sex, the loss of innocence, philosophical conjecture about the universe, and alienation. These are universal themes, but YA books specifically address them as they relate to young adults, just as other genres look at the same themes through a certain lens.

              • Alex K.

                Good books transcend these categories.

                I’m probably being nit-picky, but I think that “What are some good YA books that address trans issues?” and “What are some good books to recommend to young adults that address trans issues?” are two different questions and I prefer the latter.

                • Donna Liberty

                  They are two different questions. The part about which question you “prefer” is confusing. What if someone wants to read a YA book about trans issues? I know plenty of adults that read YA fiction, probably — but not exclusively — because I know a lot of queer librarians…

                  • Also what Donna said here. What if someone, God forbid, wants to read a YA novel? The point here is to direct the user to what they want, and that often includes determining what they might want, even if they don’t know what specific object will fulfill their needs. Not to *decide* what it is that they want for them.

                • I can see that you feel that somehow books that have missed being labeled as YA are somehow “better”, but I disagree. You seem to think of the YA label as solely a marketing tool and it isn’t. There’s an entire chapter of the American Library Association dedicated to young adult library services, YALSA. That label helps librarians, educators, and others who work with young people to connect them with books that they will find helpful, connect with, or otherwise enjoy.

                  • This is making me wanna be a librarian. I’ve always secretly thought their bookish facade just covered up a superhero inside wanting to set everyone free with information and inspiration.

        • Donna Liberty

          For example, “young adult” fiction describes fiction that describes issues relevant and of interest to young adults. “Street lit” describes a genre fiction that deals with inner-city life. The novels of Agatha Christie are referred to, in many quarters, as “mystery novels,” as the stories revolve around a mystery.

          • Donna Liberty

            So when you said, “I was not criticizing the books themselves so much as the label,” what you meant is that “YA lit is a book that’s ‘dumbed down’ to make it more digestible for the younger reader.”

            • Alex K.

              I meant that YA lit is more likely to be dumbed down to make it more digestible to the adult idea of a young reader.

              • Donna Liberty

                … based on your comments, it seems pretty clear that you didn’t know what YA fiction was until 15 minutes ago, so I doubt you’ve read much, if any, of it. Therefore, I find your contention that “YA lit is more likely to be dumbed down” to be dubious.

                If I’m wrong about your reading habits, I apologize.

              • I can’t leap into this conversation with much depth, being only an occasional YA reader myself, but I might add that plenty of genres geared toward adults are “dumbed down,” and are read by teens and adults all the time.

                • I want to read the latest trans interracial vampire sci-fi bodice-ripper. With zombies.

                  • I actually do want to read that.

        • To be fair, the question of whether the label of YA segregates fiction is a valid one to ask. I’m sure there is at least one good essay on the subject out there, but unfortunately I’m not familiar enough to cite any here. However, I will say that a label is not going to stop voracious readers from read any book they can get, and it may help reluctant readers warm up to the idea of “reading”. I know the same argument has been raised over whether graphic novels and comics should be promoted in libraries.

          • Alex K.

            The worry that prompted my initial comment was that books like Parrotfish would be “mindlessly recommended,” as GinaSF wrote in what I think was a great comment below, to teens over something by Leslie Feinberg, for example, only because they are teens and a YA book is perceived to be more accessible. Obviously, different people have different capacities and interests and some teens might prefer Parrotfish to Stone Butch Blues (and that’s fine), but I don’t think we should assume that this is the case or accept it uncritically.

            I probably got what I deserved for being flip.

            • And on the flip side, we shouldn’t assume that everyone is best served by reading Stone Butch Blues when maybe they just want to read a YA novel. (Though I have to say that Parrotfish does not sound very good and I think we can all agree on that.)

  4. Love this article, Jack, as always! And I love the shout-out to LiveJournal — hello my teenage years! I actually came to the realization that I was trans/needed to transition while writing a livejournal post. That’s how pivotal livejournal was in my trans experience, not to mention introducing me to the first trans friends I ever had.

    ~M

    • Yeah, livejournal was an invaluable resource for me when i was coming out as trans too–i would never have found all the information and resources i got through livejournal in a library (except that i often accessed lj on library computers and i think i was on a library computer when someone first showed me lj, so i did actually find it in the library)–i can’t imagine coming out 10 or 20 or more years earlier and not having access to that. for a long time lj was the one thing that kept me from feeling completely isolated from the world.

    • I had the same experience but with YouTube transition blogs.

  5. Thanks for giving a critical view of Parrotfish. This book has been mindlessly recommended for years and, as young adult fiction, I don’t find it terribly compelling nor accurate. Firstly, it’s really more of a book for people in the 11-13 age range. The writing in the book is relatively simplistic and the characterizations never go much beyond the Disney Channel or ABC Family level. So, perhaps good for a 12-year old but not for a 16-year old. And yes, the author seemingly has little real understanding of the realities of trans lives. Maybe she wanted to do something ‘upbeat’ but, in the process, she pretty much poured treacle over trans experiences and, in the process, removed a lot of the struggle and heart.

    One book I do recommend (although it’s quite a sophisticated young adult read and very harrowing) is Brian Katcher’s ‘Almost Perfect.’ I reviewed it for my blog: http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2010/06/almost-perfect-transphobia-explored-in.html. It’s a powerful and painful book about how difficult it is for a trans girl and her straight male partner in small town Missouri. Katcher doesn’t pull any punches nor try to dumb it down. It’s one of the few YA books on the subject which is also eminently readable by adults.

    “I Am J”, (http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html) while not quite as good, is still eminently worthwhile and its author, Cris Beam, has real life experience with trans teens. “Jumpstart the World” (about a cis-girl with a crush on a trans guy: http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=5774093333515644935#editor/target=post;postID=445275658350329278) I found to be father lightweight and it makes some insulting characterizations about trans men being more “sensitive.”

    I also really recommend Daisy Porter’s QueerYA blog (http://daisyporter.org/queerya/). It has excellent reviews of queer/trans themed YA fiction.

  6. I wanna read more stuff with trans characters where their trans ness is neither stapled on (has NO effect on their life/story) nor the only thing about them that’s interesting.

    I’m a huge nerd though so for now I’m entertaining myself by writing Faust/Mephistopheles fanfics involving gender bending fun.

    …Yeah well.

    I might read Parrotfish but I think I would find it annoying. I’m also waiting around for more compelling genderqueer trans fiction. I wish more people took genderqueer seriously as a trans identity, both within and without the trans circles/community/internets. I see it dismissed as an “educated white cis dyke thing” which has some basis in reality but also still makes me sad because there’s so much more to it, too.

    • Woooooord. We should talk! (Also I’m a librarian!)

      • Ohh yes lets.

        On a side note, I’m reminded of a hilarious project I did in my youth LGBTQ theater club about making “Queerytales” out of classic fairy tales. We had good cheeky fun with it (the phrase “and they lived femme-ily ever after” comes to mind) but the gender and sexuality aspects of our stories were basically most of the plot devices.

        • Wait…you live in Brighton? I live in Somerville!

          • Zomg do we already know each other? I bet we have friends in common.

    • mzomr

      I think there needs to be more literature about trans people written by trans people. I like to write. I wrote a story last year about a cis main character who ends up getting involved romantically with a trans character. I felt weird about that looking it over later – like, I’m a trans person, why am I not writing from a trans POV – but I didn’t want it to be one of those things where it’s like “oh, well, of *course* you’d be writing from a trans POV – you’re trans!” – plus I felt like the main character was someone I could write better.

      Also with the genderqueer thing – yeah. Just… yeah. I think it’s widely seen as some “phase” thing, similar to being bisexual I guess – and I’ve been told my word should be genderqueer often enough that it’s led to some disdain for the term. I’m not saying it’s accurate for anyone else. I just get annoyed with the “no, you’re this, not that” thing, which in some ways is the same as the “educated white cis dyke” accusation.

      • sometimes when I think about writing fiction (i just think about writing fiction, i don’t actually do it) I automatically want to make the main character (who is always some version of me) cis because I’m so used to the fact that if there is a trans main character in a book, the story HAS to focus hardcore on the fact that that person is trans. When I think about it critically, though, I feel like that is all the more reason to make every main character in everything i write (in this version of the future where i have time to write fiction and am not scared of writing fiction) trans, even if the story is really not about the trans at all.

        • Right now I’m having fun/a challenge working trans things into fantasy writing… in a sneaky way. A river spirit cis man makes fun of a faun for “claiming to be a man when you’ve got something else out back” and the faun is like “we’re both magical creatures, stop being a jerk”. I have no idea if that will translate for queer readers as an in-joke or if I’m totally going somewhere I shouldn’t.

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