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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

PEAK booktalk

Booktalk for Peak by Roland Smith

As you know from an earlier post, I loved this book. It's a booktalk waiting to happen, so I don't know why it's taken me so long to actually put one on paper. Too many other books to read, too little time to write, I guess! If you've read the book (and if you haven't, what's taking you so long?), you'll see that the climbing sequence is taken directly from the book. See what I mean about the booktalk writing itself?

My fingers were numb. My nose was running. I didn't have a free hand to wipe my nose, or enough rope to rappel about five hundred feet to the ground. I had planned everything out so carefully, except for the weather, and now it was uh-oh time. A gust of wind tried to peel me off the wall. I should have waited until June to make the ascent, but no, moron has to go up in March. "Moron!" I shouted.

Option #1: Finish the climb. Two hundred sixty-four feet up, or about a hundred precarious fingerholds (providing my fingers didn't break off like icicles

Option #2: Climb down. A little over five hundred feet, two hundred fifty fingerholds.

Option #3: Wait for rescue. Scratch that option. No one knew I was on the wall. By morning (providing someone actually looked up and saw me) I would be an icy gargoyle.

Up it is, then.

I timed my moves between vicious blasts of wind. The sleet turned to hail, pelting me like a swarm of frozen hornets. This is it, I told myself. Fifteen more handholds and I've topped it. I reached up for the next seam and encountered a little snag. Well, a big snag, really...My right ear and cheek were frozen to the wall.

To reach the top you must have resolve, muscles, skill, and...a FACE! Mine was anchored to the wall like a bolt, and a portion of it stayed there when I gathered enough resolve to tear it loose. Now I was mad, which was exactly what I needed to finish the climb. Cursing with every vertical lunge, I stopped about four feet below the edge, tempted to tag this monster with the blood running down my neck. Instead, I took the mountain stencil out of my pack, slapped it on the wall, and filled it in with blue spray paint.

And that's when the helicopter came up behind me and nearly blew me off the wall. "You are under arrest!"

Busted. Hey, I'd rather have been climbing a mountain, but there aren't many of those in Manhattan, so I've had to settle for climbing skyscrapers. I had no idea how much trouble that could get me into. They wanted to send me to juvenile detention for three years! I don't know what shocked me more, the idea of a three year prison sentence or the fact that it was my father who rescued me. I hadn't seen Josh since I was about seven. What was he doing here?

See, Josh is a big time mountain climber. He's famous. But all his climbing has left him with no time for me. He's never even sent me a birthday card or answered the letters I've sent. I'm not sure I can remember the last time we talked on the phone. So having him show up at my trial and offer to become my guardian and take me out of the country really blew my mind. I should have felt great about being with my father again, but I had a feeling there was more to this than met the eye.

I was right. My father didn't come get me because he was being a good dad. He came for me because now that he knows I can climb, he wants me to be the youngest kid to ever scale Mount Everest. Now here I am, sitting at Base Camp, wondering what I should do. Things here are really tense. Nobody in the group he's leading wants me here. Josh barely pays attention to me. Instead, he's got an old Buddhist monk training me. A nosy reporter is watching my every move, and so are the Chinese officials, who think we're up to something. Maybe we are. Preparing to climb Mount Everest is grueling. I can barely breathe and I feel sick all the time. Still, it would be cool to be the youngest kid to climb Mount Everest. But I don't I really want to make my father's dream come true?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

No Deposit? No Return!

Returnable Girl by Pamela Lowell
5Q 4P, J S
(for those who need to know, some swearing, some sexual situations involving secondary characters)

I seem to be on a run of this-makes-my-heart-ache books right now, and this book is right up there at the top of them. The writing is strong and you'd have to be made of granite not to feel something when you read Ronnie's story. This is one of two books I've read recently where the voice is so strong and authentic it makes you forget it's actually being told by an adult writer, not the teenager who is supposedly telling it. (The other book is Billie Standish Was Here, which I will write about soon.)

When I think back on the times my parents left us alone for a few hours, I don't remember ever being scared. We never had a doubt that they were coming back soon. Ronnie isn't so lucky. The first time she remembers her mother leaving her, she was five years old. When I was five, my older brothers watched over me. At five, Ronnie was taking care of her little brother. Whew.

Flash forward seven or eight years. Ronnie isn't taking care of her little brothers anymore, because her little brothers and her mother are all the way across the country, in Alaska. When they packed up and left, there was "no room" for Ronnie, so she was left behind. That probably had something to do with her mother's boyfriend Kenny, since Kenny hated Ronnie and the feeling was mutual. Ronnie knows her mother is an alcoholic drug abuser, but she doesn't care. She desperately wants to be with her mother and brothers. But instead, Ronnie has been shunted from foster home to foster home. Alison is her tenth placement, her eleventh if you count the time she stayed with her uncle and aunt. She's been returned from all of those placements, because nobody would put up with a girl who throws things, lies, steals, and says hateful things. Nobody will put up with a girl as angry as she is. But maybe, just maybe, Alison will be different.

Alison has strict rules for Ronnie. No throwing, no lying, no stealing. But Alison has something else for Ronnie, too: love and understanding. No matter how much trouble Ronnie gets herself into, Alison is there for her. In fact, Alison would like to adopt her. Ronnie is all mixed up. Her mother constantly makes excuses for why Ronnie can't come join them. She's in and out of halfway houses and therapy. She promises not to drink or do drugs, and then does. She makes appointments with Ronnie and then breaks them. On the other hand, Alison is rock solid. She doesn't make promises she doesn't intend to keep. And Ronnie, even though she's afraid to trust anyone, knows that Alison would never leave her. Still, she longs to be with her mother. Should she let Alison adopt her, or should she hold out for the day when her mother will send for her?

As if this wasn't enough for her to deal with, Ronnie also has to deal with a typical problem of an eighth grader: friends and popularity. Cat, her only friend, lives down the road. She's plump, a little dirty, and definitely considered odd by all the other kids, especially the popular ones. But Cat gets Ronnie, and Ronnie gets her. It's pretty clear from the things Cat tells her that she knows about messed up families. But Ronnie desperately wants to be part of the in crowd. She wants to be best friends with Paige, the most popular girl in eighth grade. But a friend of Cat's has no chance of ever being allowed into Paige's inner circle, so Ronnie distances herself from Cat and works her way into Paige's good graces. The thing is, the way Paige and her gang treat Cat (and make her treat Cat) makes Ronnie feel guilty. And the more she hangs around with Paige, the more ugliness she sees in her. Is being popular worth feeling guilty and doing things she knows are wrong? At least for now, the answer is yes.

In a book that is all about relationships, Ronnie's relationship with God is not to be overlooked. The one good thing her aunt Raylene gave her was a belief in God and in the power of prayer. Ronnie finds comfort in going to church, and its teachings are often in the back of her mind, even if she doesn't always manage to live by them. But when Francis, a youth minister she once knew, comes into her life again, it is a shining moment. When she doesn't dare trust Alison, when her mother disappoints her, Francis is there for her. And it suits her just fine that Francis is there for Alison, too.

The book (written in journal form) takes place over just about a year, and in that time, Ronnie goes through quite a bit. She is betrayed and betrays herself, and she learns to forgive. She learns what it means to be a friend. She begins to trust, and she even begins to allow herself to love and be loved. Most importantly, she discovers what she wants and where she belongs.

Musings: (Some examples of why I liked Ronnie's voice so much. I've found half a dozen things I'd like to quote dealing with her relationships with Alison, Cat, and Paige, but to get the full effect, I'd need to quote four or five paragraphs. Instead of giving you the main course, these shorter passages will have to act as appetizers.)

It didn't surprise me in the least that she would threaten to send me back; eventually, it seems, they all do. Even Alison, with her long, graying hair and her plump stomach that looks soft and cushiony like a broken-in sofa you might want to curl up on someday.

Paige's eyes are her best feature (when they aren't judging you). [It's clear throughout the book that Ronnie knows things she doesn't want to admit to herself. The truth about Paige is one of those things.]

Britnee and Sarika are always with Paige. I mean *constantly* because they are the three most popular girls at school. Sometimes it's like they are one person instead of three. I stood off near the curb, hoping that they wouldn't notice me -- or maybe hoping that they *would*, but in a nice way for a change.

I hadn't realized anyone was keeping track [of how many times she wore her Tshirt last week]. Of course she wouldn't know that wearing this shirt make makes me feel close to my mother, who sent it to me for my birthday last year. It has a picture of Mount McKinley on it and the words, "The Great One." I don't care if it's oversized, stained, and faded -- it's one of my favorites.

Cat gets made fun of by just about everybody at school and it must get to her pretty bad. Sometimes after they tease her I swear there's a deep, sad emptiness in her eyes, right where the happiness is supposed to be.

Midge [her social worker] was right. I won't [use a suitcase]. That's because people who use suitcases are coming back home. It would mean I had a place to come back *to*. And I don't. Not yet. (I wonder if I ever will.)

That's when I made a deal. If Alison would let me stay, then I promised God I would try to be a better person. I would try to be good again, just like I used to be...I would figure out a way to be so good that all that goodness would make its way all the way up to Alaska, and my mother would feel it and know it deep in her heart, and then she would come to get me and take me there to live with her forever (or at least until I was eighteen).

What I didn't tell him was how much I hate [my mother] sometimes. How I imagine myself going up there to her stupid, not-big-enough apartment and punching her in her lazy pot-smoking fact -- until she's black-and-blue and begging for mercy. I hate her so much for putting me through this. For not caring enough to even try.


It's more factual than chatty, but Pamela Lowell has a web site. (She has a MySpace page, too.)

Here's an interview with Pamela Lowell from Little Willow on her blog, Slayground.

If you liked this book, you might like:

The Year of My Miraculous Disappearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Cynnie's mother is nearly always passed out drunk. If she's not passed out, she's working on it. That leaves Cynnie to care for her three-year-old brother, who has Down's Syndrome. But Cynnie loves Bill to death, so she doesn't mind taking care of him. She does mind that her mother doesn't take care of either of them, and she does care when her grandparents take Bill away. In fact, she cares so much, especially about the latter, that she can't deal with him being gone. The only thing that makes her feel better is alcohol. It makes everything blurry and takes away the pain. But it never takes away her longing for Bill, so she is determined to get him back. How she goes about this and what happens as a result is heart-wrenching but ultimately hopeful.

You can find out more about this book on Catherine Ryan Hyde's web site or read a review at

Boot Camps Mess With Your Head

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser
3Q 3P, J S

Chilling. Disturbing. Horrific. Tense. Disheartening. Gripping.

Garrett admits that he is skipping school, stealing money, and having an affair with his (former) teacher. He doesn't see why is parents are so angry, though. Does it matter that he's not in class every day? Even attending school two or three days a week, he is still easily maintaining an average that will allow him into almost any school. Yes, he has taken money from his parents. But that's because they've refused to give him any sort of allowance because they disapprove of his girlfriend. What else is he supposed to do? And it's not like they can't afford the $20 he takes here and there, since his mother runs her own crisis management company (protecting an image is everything to her) and his father is a corporate lawyer. And yes, he is dating his teacher. He and Sabrina connected almost from the first day he walked into her class. Despite every obstacle thrown in their paths, he is not willing to give her up. For these crimes, Garrett is sent to a boot camp to straighten him up.

He is taken to the camp in handcuffs. When he arrives, he's strip searched and manhandled at every opportunity. And he's told,
"Your parents have signed and notarized a consent form allowing Lake Harmony to use restraint whenever necessary. The type and degree of restraint administered shall be at the discretion of the staff. Lake Harmony and its employees will not be held liable for any injury sustained by you during the administration of restraint as it is understood that such injury is the result of willful disobedience on your part."

The introduction to the camp's Bible (information for inmates) reads:
You are now a member of the Lake Harmony community. You will be released when you are judged to be respectful, polite, and obedient enough to return to your family. During your stay here you will have no communication with the outside world, except for letters to your parents. After six months your parents may visit you for a day if they choose.

The treatment that Garrett receives at the camp is brutal. His "father" (each group of campers is assigned a "father" or "mother" leader) is determined to break him down and make him admit that his actions were wrong and that he is sincerely sorry for causing his parents so much trouble. Higher level campers are used to keep lower level students in line, and there are no lines drawn at how they can do this, with the exception that any bruises can't be in a place that shows. (The same holds true for the staff.) Another common punishment is TI, Temporary Isolation, where the inmate is forced to lie facedown on a cold concrete floor for twenty-four hours a day.

Garrett is a very strong-minded boy. He knows that some of his actions were technically wrong, but he refuses to admit that loving Sabrina is wrong in any way. He also knows that it is wrong to stand idly by while kids are beaten by thugs and bullies, and he can't help coming to their defense (in particular, he stands up for a boy named Paulie). He also refuses to suck up to the staff. For these infractions and insubordinations, he is often sent to TI, and he is often beaten. Still, Garrett refuses to give up. He listens during group meetings as kids on higher levels say things like, "I'd be dead if it weren't for Harmony Lake" and "I deserved every punishment I got" and can't imagine those words ever coming out of his mouth.

There are two other inmates who have also refused to get with the program. Sarah has been at the camp for two years. Paulie has been there for well over a year. Both are still at Level One, meaning they've made no progress in accepting their guilt or misbehavior. When Garrett first arrives, Sarah is still defiant, but as the weeks go by, both she and Paulie begin to lose their will to fight. They know if they don't get out of the camp, they'll die. But neither will give in to get ahead, so their only chance is to escape the camp. And their only chance to escape successfully is if Garrett comes with them.

I thought that Garrett's situation couldn't get worse, but I was wrong.


As I said above, I found this book chilling to read. I also have to admit, though, that I kept asking myself if Strasser wasn't exaggerating the conditions of camps like this. But he provides a list of resources he used to research this book, and he certainly has evidence on his side.

I did find, though, that the villains of the piece were too one-dimensional. Almost every staff member is rotten any way you look at him (we meet only one female staff member), never having even a moment of doubt about what he's doing and never having even a moment of looking at these kids as though they're fellow human beings. I can easily believe that there are a few people on staff who glory in sanctioned bullying and sadism, but I find it harder to believe that every staff member is like that. And of the teens, only Garrett, Sarah, and Paulie are developed in any way. Only three or four other teens are even named, and they exist only to perpetuate and perpetrate the bullying. I think the book would have benefited by having more shades of gray in these characters.


To learn more about Todd Strasser, check out his web site.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Did you miss me?

The five or so of you who subscribe to this blog may have wondered where I've been lately. Well, after summer reading ended, I decided to go visit the mouse. Yeah, that mouse. :) Actually, I didn't see Mickey, but I did get my picture taken with Piglet and Tigger (mostly because friends insisted!). And I rode a Segway, challenged myself to ride Thunder Mountain without closing my eyes (it took several tries, but I almost did it) and Splash Mountain without ducking to put my face somewhere around my ankles when the big drop came up (ditto), and in general had a really good time despite the fact that some pretty heavy thunderstorms cut short a couple of days in the parks. They did at least give me time to get some reading done, so I have about half a dozen books to blog about over the next few days. It'll take me some time to get my thoughts together on them, but you can expect to read my thoughts on Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crockett, Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, Returnable Girl by Pamela Lowell, Boot Camp by Todd Strasser, Dramarama by E. Lockhart, and I think at least one other. And I hope to post a booktalk on Peak by Roland Smith, too. Whew!