Title: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Two-sentence summary: When Grady comes out as transgender, the backlash from his friends, family, and school overwhelms him. But as he meets friends (and maybe a first love) who see him as he is, he finds the strength to fight for acceptance.
Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book’s main character is a straight, teenage trans man. While he begins the story using a female name and pronouns, Parrotfish follows him as he accepts his identity and begins transitioning at the start of his junior year. It also features discussion of sexual orientation versus gender identity.
Review: Fun fact: this was the first book I ever read about a trans person, back when I was thirteen years old in 2011. I didn’t recognize that I was transgender until a few years later, but I remember reading about Grady’s experience and thinking to myself, “I’m just like this person. I wish I was a boy, too.” It was a key book for me in recognizing feelings I had about my gender and because of that, it holds a special place in my heart. Plus, it’s just a cute book in general with a loveable, courageous protagonist.
One critique, however, is that this book phrases Grady’s identity more as a “girl who wants to be a boy” than a trans man. That’s part of the reason, I think, I didn’t realize I was trans then. I remembered it more about a girl who felt like a boy than a boy born in the wrong body. It was not likely the author’s intention, but I think portraying trans people like that could spread misinformation about what gender identity means. Wittlinger also refers to Grady as “transgendered,” which is a dated and, depending on the trans person, sometimes offensive term (though it may not have been as outdated when the book as written).
Grady also engages in some unsafe transitioning practices—particularly using Ace bandages to bind his chest, which can cause bruised or cracked ribs and long-term breathing issues. The safe way to bind is using a chest binder or kinesiology tape, either of which would have been better options to portray when writing for teens. I understand why the author wrote this, as this was published eleven years ago when binders weren’t as common and even then, lots of trans people who can’t afford them still use Ace bandages. That being said, I think if a young trans guy read this, it could give him harmful ideas about binding. Maybe not the biggest complaint for a story, but something I felt concerned about since it’s a YA novel.
That being said, Parrotfish is also heartwarming and spreads a message of unconditional love and acceptance, which is groundbreaking considering its older publication date. It was written in a time when very little about trans acceptance was talked about in the media or mainstream queer community, let alone YA fiction. It probably helped a lot of young trans teens, myself included, come to terms with their identity and feel less different or alone. Overall, a sweet and uplifting story written when trans identities were seen differently than they are now.
Quote: “You can only lie about who you are for so long without going crazy.”
Recommended: This is one of the oldest trans YA books (2007) that I’ve been able to find, and the oldest in general about a trans man. It tells a compelling story and has a positive message for both trans teens and those unfamiliar with the trans community. But because of the way trans identities are portrayed and some unsafe transitioning practices, I feel like this is a good introductory book for people just learning about the trans community but not the ideal first book for trans teens.