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Parrotfish

Review

Parrotfish

High school junior Angela Katz-McNair is about to make a big announcement. She's tired of living life as a lie and figures it's about time to be honest for a change. You see, Angela, who's biologically female, knows on the inside that she's really a boy. And so, with the aid of baggy boys' clothes, a chest-flattening binder and a new name --- Grady --- Angela shows up at school, ready to live his life as a boy.

The road to acceptance is, unsurprisingly, a rocky one. Grady's mother can't get over losing her oldest daughter. Grady's younger sister Laura is horrified about what Grady's revelations might do to her reputation at school. Likewise, Grady's former best friend-turned-social-climber Eve runs away from the situation instead of offering support.

Fortunately for Grady's vulnerable position, he does find a few allies. The gym teacher goes to bat for him with school administration and also helps him overcome some practical hurdles. (For instance, does Grady change in the girls’ locker room or the boys’?) Grady's dad, if not enthusiastic, is at least accepting and matter-of-fact about his son. And a classmate, Sebastian --- a genius who befriends misfits because they're the most interesting people --- grows to become one of Grady's most valuable and trusted friends.

PARROTFISH is one of the first young adult novels to address transgender issues. Like its predecessor, Julie Anne Peters's 2004 novel LUNA, Wittlinger's book uses examples from the natural world to explain these sensitive issues. Here the animal in question is the stoplight parrotfish, subject of Sebastian's research paper, a creature that can change from female to male in response to stimuli and stresses in its environment. Although this metaphor effectively inspires one of the novel's thematic statements ("Nature creates many variations"), even Grady recognizes the limitations of the parallels between him and the parrotfish, which changes gender in order to reproduce.

A more effective image used with great effect by Wittlinger is that of performativity. Without hitting readers over the head with gender theory, Wittlinger includes the idea that everyone performs gender to a certain degree. Grady's father is obsessed with the family's annual Christmas decorations and Christmas Eve tableaux, a performance of family harmony and tradition that has seemed increasingly false as the kids have gotten older. This subplot more effectively, and subtly, conveys the novel's themes about identity, performance and genuine experience.

Although the novel is structured like many typical realistic young adult coming-of-age stories (it includes backstabbing and secret crushes, and even culminates with a school dance and family Christmas), the immediate, supportive social network that surrounds and protects Grady from criticism, scorn and violence (which isn't even hinted at here) doesn't always ring true. Nevertheless, even this plot weakness will certainly have readers imagining how Grady would be treated at their schools --- and will probably get them thinking about gender issues in new ways as well.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 10, 2007

Parrotfish
by Ellen Wittlinger

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1416916229
  • ISBN-13: 9781416916222