By Shanda Glover
I would definitely call myself a bookworm.
I am always on the lookout for new and exciting books to read into the late hours of the night. When I say new and exciting, I mean novels that are not about the same (white) damsel-in-distress waiting for her prince, or another teen angst book complaining about life. These books seem to be so popular, compared to the underrepresented African American, Asian American, or Latin American protagonist, and let’s not even mention the lack of representation of lesbian, gay, or transgendered characters. Go to any bookstore and you can find a multitude of books on elves, vampires, and witches, but trying to find a book on transgendered teens is nearly impossible.
However, if you search hard enough, you can find gold.
When I first read Parrotfish, by Ellen Wittlinger, I was taken aback. I was a freshman in high school, and my best friend gave me a list of her top five books, and Parrotfish was number one. I went to the bookstore and found a copy hiding between Twilight and Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew. That night I devoured it. I absolutely could not put the book down.
This book is about a female high school student, Angela, who is desperately tired of pretending that she is happy being a girl. Eventually, she decides that she deserves to be happy, and she cuts her hair, changes her name to Grady, and begins a new life as she seeks to be accepted by everyone as the boy she knows herself to really be.
“People changed lots of other personal things all the time. They dyed their hair and dieted themselves to near death. They took steroids to build muscles and got breast implants and nose jobs so they’d resemble their favorite movie stars. They changed names and majors and jobs and husbands and wives. They changed religions and political parties. They moved across the country or the world — even changed nationalities. Why was gender the one sacred thing we weren’t supposed to change? Who made that rule,” Angela states before her transition.
What makes the book stand out is how Wittlinger decides to unfold Grady’s story. Wittlinger doesn’t make a dramatic spectacle including physical attacks from teachers or students, nor do Grady’s parents kick out their child. The storyline is developed in simplicity. However, there is some high school trauma from other kids (bullying and name-calling) and it is not at all a walk in the park for Grady. But the bigger story is not what everyone else thinks about Grady, but rather how Grady weathers the storm of his decision.
Wittlinger allows the reader to see how hard it can be for the average teenager to stand up to peer pressure when it comes to fitting in with the crowd, let alone make such a dramatic personal decision about gender.
At its core, Parrotfish is about a girl who is tired of trying to squeeze herself in the society’s definition of normal, and her journey to find her own sense of normalcy. Angela is brave and determined in her new incarnation as Grady.
Of course there are the ones who are mean for no other reason than to be mean and navigating their cruelty is almost more than Grady can withstand. However, with with the new friends in his corner and his family reaching toward their own differing degrees of acceptance (some members moving faster than others), he is able to keep going
By the end of the book, Grady has triumphed in more ways than one and readers will likely be transformed on at least some small scale by all he has accomplished.
Hopefully, I haven’t made this books sound like a cheesy after school special, or an informational textbook to read to high school students. It’s just amazing to imagine a teenager being able to find happiness and being able to take their lives into their own hands by choosing to change their name, and their style. And having the confidence to walk into the high school administrative office and announce that from now on they want to be addressed by a new name and be accepted as a new gender.
Wittlinger has written an honest and compelling story, that readers will find impossible to tear themselves away from.
So, the next time you find yourself in a bookstore trying to find something new and exciting but come up empty handed. Do not give up.
However, to help you get started, here is a list of novels with LGBTQ protagonists that may help alleviate some stress.