Thursday, September 20, 2007

Boy? Girl? Other? Neither?

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
4Q 3P J/S

A few years ago, the acronym GLBTQ started showing up all over the place. Suddenly, we weren't just talking about sexuality in terms of straight, gay, or lesbian. Now bisexual and transgender were added to the mix (along with queer/questioning, depending on who you asked about the acronym). I understood what bisexual meant, but what did it mean to be transgendered? If it's confusing for me, how much more confusing is it for teens? I read articles explaining it, and those helped, but I didn't really get it until I read Luna by Julie Ann Peters. And now I can add Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish to a very short list of books about being transgendered. Books like these peel the label away to show you the person underneath, and that's incredibly important and valuable. But Parrotfish isn't just an issue book. It's also just a darned good read, which isn't surprising, given its author.

After I wrote that paragraph, I wondered if I should be using the word "issue" at all. Is sexuality an issue? Should it be? As far as Grady is concerned, it shouldn't be. But Grady was born Angela and lived the first fifteen years of his life as a girl, and so he knows that yes, sexuality is an issue for a lot of people. But it bugs him. Why is whether you're a boy or girl so darned important? Why does it have to be a simple answer? One or the other? Not everyone fits so neatly into the category we get saddled with on Day One. Angela always knew she was different somehow. When her teachers told the class to line up in a boys line and a girls line, the other kids never seemed to have any question which line they belonged in. Angela knew she was supposed to go in the girl's line, but inside she knew she belonged with the boys. She also knew she'd get in trouble if she stood there. So for years, Grady allowed people to think of him as a girl. But now he's in his junior year of high school and he's tired of pretending to be someone he's not. Last year he let people think he was just a butch lesbian, or maybe just a freak. But that was pretending, too. He's not a girl, even if that's what his body tells the world he is. He's a guy. He's not Angela, he's Grady. And the world is just going to have to accept that.

Of course, it's not that easy. The reactions are varied, even in his own family. His father is surprisingly okay with it. His little brother is confused, but accepting. His sister Laura is angry. She's afraid that Grady is ruining any chance she has at being popular. And Grady's mother is just plain freaked out by it. She's not angry or rejecting, she's just...avoiding. She can't even look him in the eye or call him by name. When she finally does say Grady instead of Angela, it's a big moment for both of them. And it's not just his family Grady has to deal with. He also has to go to school and face the music there. Grady's best friend, Eve, is even more concerned than Laura about being seen with Grady: "Angie, this is too confusing. I'm not like you. I need to have friends -- I don't want people to think I'm a weirdo...Angela was my friend, but I don't know who Grady is! I'm sorry, but I can't call you that in front of other people. I can't be a part of this whole thing. it's just too bizarre." With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But if old friends and family sometimes let Grady down, he also discovers new friends where he least expects them. He would never have predicted that Russ, one of the most popular boys in school, and his (gorgeous) girlfriend Kita would turn out to be his strongest allies, or that Sebastian, the nerdy guy from her TV Production class, would become her new best friend. Sebastian's reaction to learning that Angela is now a boy named Grady? "Wow! You're just like the stoplight parrotfish!" In the world of stoplight parrotfish, it seems, changing gender from female to male isn't at all unusual, and Sebastian can't see why it should be any different among humans. He's happy to take Grady as he is, whoever that is. It won't surprise anyone to learn that Sebastian is unusual in that regard. Most of the other students think Grady's a freak and treat him accordingly. His high school principal and most of his teachers aren't supportive at all. But Sebastian, Russ, Kita, and Ms. Unger (the gym teacher) always have his back.

But gender identity isn't the only thing on Grady's mind. Like every teenager, he worries about family stuff and romance, too. For instance, he's desperate for a way to tell his father that the rest of the family has outgrown a family tradition he cherishes. This is going to take some delicate negotiating. But that's nothing compared to the tightrope he's walking with Russ and Kita. What do you do when you have the hots for a girl who's going out with your friend? When they're having trouble, do you root for them to work it out or do you root for them to break up so you can move in? And can you move in? Does Kita really see him as a guy, or would it totally freak her out to know that Grady desperately wants to kiss her?

These are things that everyone can relate to. And that's a hallmark of Ellen Wittlinger's writing: her ability to make her stories real and personal. No matter what the overall topic, be it a transgendered teen, a lonely boy who falls in love with a girl he can never be with (Hard Love), or a girl who made some poor choices for the sake of popularity (Sandpiper), the "issue" never overwhelms the story. When all is said and done, it is the characters you remember and care about. You will remember and care about Grady, too.

Wittlinger breaks some stereotypes here. For once, the father is the family member who is the most accepting. That's not a typical scenario. And it's about time a gym teacher is not only not a Neanderthal, she's the teacher Grady can most rely on for help and understanding.

I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of Grady's made up conversations. I understand why they're there, and I think a lot of people do this (I know I do!), but they still felt a little jarring, maybe because the voice used in them seemed too different from the voice used in the rest of the book.

I realized it wasn't just that I became uninterested in girls when I hit puberty and started figuring out sex. I was a boy way before that, from the age of four or five, before I knew anything about sex. On one of the websites it said that gender identity - whether you feel like a boy or a girl - starts long before sexual identity - whether you're gay or straight. In my dreams at night, I was a boy, but every morning I woke to the big mistake. Everyone thought I was a girl because that's the way my body looked, and it was crystal clear to me that I was expected to pretend to *be* a girl whether I liked it or not. (pp. 18-19)

It occurred to me that the male members of my family seemed to be taking this better than the females, and I wondered why that was. Did the women feel like I was deserting them by deciding to live as the opposite sex? Maybe for Dad and Charlie, it didn't seem strange to want to be male, since that's what they were. But Mom and Laura -- and, of course, Eve -- acted like I was betraying them somehow. Would I have to give them up if I wasn't a girl anymore? I hoped not. I hoped that changing my gender wouldn't mean losing my entire past. (pp. 33-34.)

Does a hamlet fish carry around a skull and ponder suicide? (p. 71). Hee.

Sebastian and Grady have a conversation on pages 98-99 that struck me for several reasons, not least of which was that Sebastian helps Grady realize that he's not the only person who feels like a freak. It just his reason that's different. But it also struck me when Grady thinks, "...were there other people who thought I should off myself so their world wouldn't be spoiled by my presence?" Now there's a thought to make you shudder. Later, Grady thinks, "I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself. To be scornful of anybody who wasn't just like you." Food for thought.

Other reviews on this book: Bookslut and Teen Reads

Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Ellen in 2005.

Ellen has an official web site, but it doesn't seem to have been updated with information about Parrotfish yet.

Edited to fix a couple of typos.

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