GENRE: Realistic Fiction
Author: Ellen Wittlinger
Published July, 2007
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 304 pages
Ages: 12 and up
Grades: 7 and up
Bank Street Best Books of the Year, Lambda Literary Award Finalist, NYPL "Books for the Teen Age" Volunteer State Book Award Master List (TN)
Reader’s Annotation: Angela Katz McNair leads a seemingly normal life in a typical blended suburban family until her junior year of high school when she decides she’s tired of living a lie, cuts her hair and announces to the world that she is now a he—named Grady. As Grady, Angela meets with all kinds of challenges—what bathroom to use, what friends to keep and how much courage it takes to be who you really are.
For the last sixteen years, Angela Katz McNair was a typical American teenager girl—she had an annoying sister, a goofy, couch potato brother, a harried Jewish mom married to a Christmas-fanatic Catholic Dad—and a secret. Something about her didn’t feel right. She knew all along that she was different, and then one day, she decided that she was going to show the world her true colors: that she was really a boy. Angels cut her hair, bound her breasts, wore boys’ clothes and changed her name to Grady. When she “came out” at school the trouble started. Some teachers understood, some didn’t. Some of his peers called him Grady, some wouldn’t. His best friend since childhood, Eve, didn’t know what to do, and felt peer pressure to ignore him. But Grady persisted, and met Sebastian, a geek who befriended him, and helped Grady feel okay about who he was. When Grady met the beautiful Kita, his friend’s girl, he felt an attraction. When Kita accepted Grady for who he was and called him courageous, Grady knew he was hooked. But what girl would want a transgendered person? Grady’s growth throughout the book, coupled with the craziness of the outlandish family Christmas pageant, makes this book a charming and important story.
Parrotfish takes it title from a real species of fish that changes its gender to survive, depending on the fish’s population each year. It is a fitting metaphor for Angela-turned-Grady, a small and skinny girl that turned into a smaller and skinnier boy who, for the first time in her whole almost-seventeen years, finally feels better in her own skin. Her transition is not a smooth one, but Wittlinger makes the story believable, despite making it tame. While the concept of gender versus sex is an important one, Wittlinger presents it in such a way that it is palatable even to those who might disagree with the idea. It is a very human story with well rounded characters and interesting situations, which makes it a good introduction to this very important issue for those who may be afraid or uncomfortable. The plot involving Kita is especially interesting, when the most beautiful girl in the school is actually not portrayed as a plastic stereotype, but an ethnic and attitudinal mix of diversity at her best. For one, this is an uplifting story despite its challenges, and I believe that many readers will find it heartwarming and important.
Reading level/Interest Age:
The reading level for this book is 7th grade, but I recommend it for ages 14 and up. I think some middle school readers would be too giggly at the concept, but it is clearly an easy read for a high school audience.
Information about the Author:
Ellen Wittlinger (10-21-1948) is an only child, born and raised in Belleville, Illinois where she lived until she went to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Her parents owned a grocery store, and she lived in a house right next to it. She had a sense of wanderlust, and upon graduation moved to Ashland Oregon with a friend. She wanted to be a poet, so she applied and was accepted to the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree. She moved to Massachusetts and won two fellowships at the Fine Arts Center, where she began writing plays. Eventually she became a children’s librarian and had children of her own. That was when she first began writing books for children. Her first book, Lombardo's Law, was published in 1993. Since then she has written many more novels.
Books about peer acceptance and rejection, bullying and transcendence.
You can’t help how you were born. Imagine what it would be like if, on the outside you looked like a typical high school girl, but on the inside you felt like a boy—and then you decided to do something about it by cutting your hair, wearing different clothes and changing your name. How would you fit in now?
Challenge Issues: Transgender discussions may be issues for some very conservative people. However, it is a real issue, and transgender people exist, so it is important to promote understanding and tolerance of those who walk in different shoes.
Why I Included This Book: It was assigned for a class, but I was so happy to read it. Finally, a young adult book about a very important topic that isn’t a total downer! True, there are issues here, but there is also humor, love and tolerance to overcome the fear and loathing. This is an important book for everyone to read.
Cover image courtesy of http://books.simonandschuster.com/Parrotfish/Ellen-Wittlinger/9781416916222