Last week I blazed through the book Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (first published in 2007, wow). The gist is that Angela, now Grady, is an FTM transgender teen, and has to deal with transitioning in her family and at school.
First of all I’d like to congratulate the author for publishing this book at all. I’m betting she took a big risk in writing the book and getting it out there, especially when considering this is a Young Adult (YA) book, and there are only 2 other transgender teen books out there (that I know of). So, props to the author, and review notwithstanding, my respect for it still stands. Second, I’d like to preface this review with a warning of its brutal honesty, to the point of being harsh. My disappointment in the book is likely magnified by the overly optimistic expectations I had for it. Now on to the review.
The word that kept coming to mind was trite, and that pretty much sums it up. By page 60 I was already less than hopeful for the rest of the book. The dialog read more like a PFLAG pamphlet than what any real person would even remotely say. In addition to the complete lack of emotion in any of the characters, what they were actually saying was stiff to the extreme, resembling a compiled Trans 101 FAQ than actual conversations one might have, not to mention outrageously unrealistic. Several characters had alread been introduced, to the point that names are mentioned and lines are spoken, but a cardboard cutout of Justin Bieber has more life than all of the characters put together. This did not improve throughout pages 61 to 261.
For instance, when Grady comes out to the principal of the school, informing him of the name and gender change, the principal responds by saying:
“Well Angela, that’s just silly. Of course you aren’t really a boy. You’re probably a lesbian- I understand that. And I suppose you want to prove something by going all the way like this.”
Try to imagine your principal, or any other person in some position of authority, saying this to you, word for word. Now, take the gym teacher’s response to Grady’s coming out:
“Don’t tell me… Good Lord, you’re transgendered, aren’t you?”
Yes, people definitely think this, and people most definitely have ways of expressing this. But again, the dialog is trite, and the context in which it was presented renders its credibility to nil.
Another big issue that kept nagging at me is the timeline of events. Angela cuts her hair, puts on boys clothes, and changes her name to Grady, and her gender to boy, and comes out to her family and friends, all in what seems to be the course of a weekend. Then Grady goes to school on Monday and informs all of his teachers and his principal of his new name and his decision to live as a boy. Also, his family seems to perform a 1080 opinion flip on Grady’s transition, all in the matter of a few days, at most a week or two. To stretch reality would be an understatement when we say people don’t realize they are transgender, come out to their family, friends, and school, AND transition, all in one weekend.
Moreover, it bothered me that we never get to read about Grady’s thoughts on the decision to transition. We only get the trite response: “I couldn’t keep on living as a female.” Yeah, most trans people don’t want to keep living as XX or XY, that much is true. But transition is not something you just up and decide to do because you can’t stand being XX or XY anymore. Transition is so much more complex than that, and the decision to transition is one that people mull over for months, years, or decades even.
Actually, we don’t really get to read any deep conflicts in Grady’s mind. Most of the book deals with outward discrimination and bullying and non-accpetance, but nothing internal. Many transgender people go through their first hell with themselves, before they even tell a soul about it. As much as outward discrimination is a reality and should be legitimately addressed, it tends to stir up and aggravate the internal conflicts one is already trying to grapple with, compounding with the other threats. Thus, the non-prescence of these struggles added to my disillusionment with the book.
The high point was the skit towards the end of the book, which is outrageous and unrealisitic, in a good way (suspending disbelief is sometimes allowed). It was a cheerful way to wrap up a difficult concept, and, had the metaphor been less obvious, it might have been lost on younger readers. This was also one of the few places where the author’s voice really shined through, which makes me wonder why the rest of the book wasn’t like that.
What usually happens when I read YA books is that they leave me wanting more; they start out promising, and continue to be so, up until the end where the wrap up is finally disappointingly quick and unclimatic. Still, I yearn for their improvement, spotting out the places where they could be so much better if… Unfortunately this book did not ever even approach promising, save probably for its main topic, which was the original point of attraction. It did not leave me wanting more; it left me wanting to quit and start over. I’m not sure if this was due to the author’s general style (as I have not read any of her other books), or whether it was aimed at a much younger audience (as I usually read books aimed for grades 9-12), or because of the author’s presumable lack of knowledge and first hand experience with transgender or queer topics. All in all, this book was short of everything: plot, characters, depth of thought, and depth of the subject matter.
I must point out, however, that Parrotfish is the first YA book where the main character is an FTM transgender teen. The other two YA books with trans characters are both MTFs (Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, 2010 and Luna by Julie Anne Peters, 2006, reviews forthcoming). Once again, I’d like to apologize to the author for this scathing review, and despite it, thank her on getting this book out there. Visibility and awareness are the baby steps towards knowledge and acceptance, so this book definitely holds an important place in advancing transgender rights. Let’s hope that in a few years time there will be countless more books out there targetted at teens that deal with transgender issues.
Bonus! Participating in the “Gender Identity & Expression Challenge 2011″
Visit the Bibrary site for more info – it sounds like fun if you’re already reading some queer literature (and if you aren’t, you should)!