By Ellen Wittlinger
Simon & Schuster
When Grady comes out as transgender, he is unprepared for the reactions of those around him; his family struggle to understand and friendships are lost and found. Soon he meets Sebastian, whose tiny stature and fondness for books has led him to be an outcast. However Sebastian knows of a precedent for gender fluidity found in nature, the parrotfish supermales. With Sebastian at his side, Grady takes on the gossiping school, meets the beautiful Kita, and comes to understand more about both himself and his peers.
What we like about it
Told entirely from his point of view, Parrotfish is one of the few young adult books to include a transgender protagonist. We meet Grady as he adopts his new name, and begins his public transition.
A brilliant metaphor puts gender on a football pitch with the most masculine person you can think of at one end and the most feminine at the other, everyone else falling somewhere in between. ‘A lot of people in the middle of the field.’ A wonderful visual representation of the spectrum of gender expression.
Questions and learning points
What could the teachers have done to create a safer environment for Grady? Do you think the book would be different written in 2013? Have attitudes changed?
There are a lot of mentions of Grady ‘deciding’ to change genders. Is this an accurate choice of language?
When discussing gender stereotypes, casual use of language like ‘sissy’ raises flags.
Were things resolved too quickly? Does this present an unrealistic portrayal of people’s responses to someone transitioning?
Charlie: Parrotfish is an engaging story with a great sense of humour, showing Grady’s emotional struggles with his family and friends. There is a minimal focus on violent behaviour, as often shown in books featuring 'coming out' narratives, however by the end of the story Grady’s biggest doubters are not given a point of view that would allow them to question their presumptions, instead they are punished. I felt that the inclusion of supportive P.E. teacher, Ms. Unger, educating rather than punishing Grady's biggest tormentors could have added more to the plot, particularly in conversation with the headteacher.
Grady triumphs and ultimately finds acceptance within his core friendship group. This is particularly well done in the eventual casual acceptance of his sister and mother. His biggest struggle is internalised in disassociating himself from his childhood, shown through his fractured friendship with Eve. The story reaches a fun conclusion, set to the backdrop of a family Christmas. At times the narrative seemed a little too easy, however, particularly with regards to the characterisation of Grady’s romantic interest - Kita seems a bit too ideal, and the inclusion of her boyfriend and a love triangle is a convenient way to avoid tackling any long term relationship commitments. I would question how much this quick resolution does to hinder a fully realised representation of Trans* youth experience?
Beth: I thought this book had some fascinating insights into constructs of gender, and agree that the metaphor of the football field was excellent. My main issue was with how quickly everything was resolved. Grady 'comes out' at Thanksgiving, and by Christmas the situation seems resolved. In reality I think it would take many people a lot longer to adjust to his transition. That said, and absolutely brilliant book that will make anyone think.
Fen: I too loved the football pitch episode. Just asking people where they would put themselves on that line would prompt some fantastic discussions about gender. Yes, I agree that things ended a little too tidily. Also the whole portrayal of Kita was so sugary and 'dreamy' - on the other hand, both LGB and Trans people are so often either over-sexualised or refused any sexual life altogether in cultural representations that that in many ways I found Grady's crush quite refreshing. Overall, I delighted in this book's exploration of gender, its shunning of any easy answers and its satisfyingly complex analysis of identity- all within an accessible, engaging story.
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