Queer YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

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TitleParrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

Rating: 3/5

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.

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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which is a dated and, depending on the trans person, sometimes offensive term (though it may not have been as outdated when the book as written).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.

LGBTQ YA Review: Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black

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Title: Devil and the Bluebird

Author: Jennifer Mason-Black

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After losing her mother to cancer, Blue Riley makes a deal with the devil to find her runaway sister Cass. With the help of her mother’s guitar and a pair of boots that lead her to her heart’s longing, she embarks on a journey with both temptation and hope waiting on every corner.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book featured several prominent queer characters. What I loved about it was how seamlessly the author weaved their LGBTQ identities into the story without making it a major plot point. Being queer affected, of course, who they were as characters and how they acted, but it didn’t consume their identities. Without spoiling anything by mentioning the character’s name, I especially enjoyed the depiction of a gay trans character, maybe because trans characters are generally portrayed as straight in queer YA and I like that we’re seeing some diverse identities within the genre. And, of course, as a queer trans guy, it felt validating to see an identity like mine portrayed in a book—everyone deserves to feel that.

What I loved: For whatever reason, one of my favorite Halloween songs when I was a kid was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, possibly because it had two good things: a spooky and compelling story and a good rhythm. Devil and the Bluebird mirrors the Southern Gothic feel of that song, with the rhythm coming in the beautifully-crafted imagery. In some ways, this novel captures the essence of a folk song. Its core story of a girl named Blue betting her soul against the devil for her sister may be fantastical, but the emotions and characters feel so real that it’s devastating at times. Even minor characters are described so well that they click perfectly with the plot and make the entire novel feel purposeful in every word it uses.

Quote: “Remember that the devil is the one who tells you to play a tune that’s not your own, and you can drive him right on out into the cold by playing what’s in your soul.”

Recommended: It’s getting close to Halloween, and if you’re looking for queer YA with a fairly spooky plot, this book is for you. And if you’re looking for an artfully-written novel with diverse, lifelike characters and a bittersweet story, you’ll find that here, too.

Twitter, Job Searching, and Other Mini Life Updates

Hello, friends! When I posted that The Inexplicable Logic of My Life review yesterday, it occurred to me that I hadn’t posted a personal update in a while. So much has changed since graduating college in August that I think writing everything would devolve into a mess of rambles and exclamation points, so here are a few things going on right now in a neat bullet list form:

  • I got a Twitter—this time for real! It’s @andyjwinder, if you’re interested. Twitter is something I tried a few times in the past but I’ve heard it’s great for networking in the YA publishing world and memes, so I’m giving it another go. I’m still trying to get the hang of it but would love to connect with more awesome, literary (or meme-y) people!
  • All of the time I used to spend studying is now devoted to applying and interviewing for jobs. I never thought I’d find something more exciting and anxiety-provoking than walking to the testing center during finals week, but here we are. I just keep telling myself “this is why I got my bachelor in English, this is what I’ve been training for, it’ll be alright” and so on. And then I cry a little, just on the inside. But so far, so good and I’m feeling pretty optimistic!
  • During my last semester of college, I took a break from long-term creative writing projects to finish my senior thesis but am getting back into the swing of things and working on a new novel draft! It’s still very rough but it’s YA and features (among other things) baking competitions, a character named Rose who is a lot less delicate than her namesake, and a nice queer romance. Going for that “wholesome and uplifting” feel to counterbalance all the sad (but still beautiful) queer YA out there.
  • Last year at Pride, I wanted more than anything to have someone to share my life with and wondered if I was broken because I’d never had a partner or even a first kiss before. And this past week, I got to attend Provo Pride with my boyfriend. It’s funny how different life can become in a year. I feel lucky to know and spend time with someone as silly, thoughtful, and sweet as he is and happy that we found each other.
  • And, best for last, I finally found the music that really sparks my drive while writing fiction, and it’s folk music. On a related note, I have been listening to way too much Hozier lately.

That’s a little bit about what my life’s looking at right now. Hectic, sometimes a little less clear-cut than my life in university used to be, but overall bright!

LGBTQ YA Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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Title: The Art of Being Normal

Author: Lisa Williamson

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Fourteen-year-old David Piper is hiding a secret: even though she was born male, she would give anything to be a normal girl like her sister. When her school’s new student Leo Denton stands up for her in a fight, she finds that “normal” is much more messy and complicated than she thought.


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 Photos via Unsplash

What I loved: I thought that this novel did a great job handling heavy themes with grace and respect. Often, trans YA books deal only with gender identity and the consequences of coming out. That is a strong element of The Art of Being Normal, but Leo and David’s stories also deal with poverty, childhood neglect, absent parents, and bullying. I liked how the novel didn’t gravitate around gender because it made David’s trans identity seem less isolated. She’s not just this stock character who has nothing going for her besides her gender identity. She’s connected to Leo, her friends and family, and others in her life in a way that adds dimension to her personality. Her gender identity is important, but it’s not her defining feature. I think it’s important to broaden trans YA from “trans coming out stories” to “trans characters having rich, complex experiences” and this book does so very well.

The Art of Being Normal is written in a dual POV, with chapters switching off between David and Leo. I’m not always in love with this format because it can be difficult to make the two voices separate. In this book, though, it’s effective. Both Leo and David have distinct, well-developed voices and their POVs add important elements to the novel. If the story were told from just one POV, it wouldn’t feel as compelling.

Quote: “Besides, who wants to be normal anyway? Fancy that on your gravestone. ‘Here lies so-and-so. They were entirely normal.’”

Recommended: This is a book I’d recommend for people who want more insight into the trans experience if they’re not as familiar with the LGBTQ community. It’s a great “beginner” book for delving into trans YA. It’s insightful and offers a strong window into David’s story without bogging the text down with too many definitions. I love that it normalizes the trans experience while still voicing unique experiences that teens may face while coming out. Balanced, a little bittersweet, but ultimately a beautiful read.

Next: The Weekend Bucket List by Mia Kerick

YA Fiction Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Note: Back from the post-finals hiatus with a new review! This is a book I actually read in high school, one of the few LGBTQ books my high school library had. Though this was before I came to terms with much of my own gender identity or sexual orientation, I remember enjoying it a lot and thought it only right to share the beautiful writing of David Levithan.

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Title: Two Boys Kissing

Author: David Levithan

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Two seventeen year-old boys, Harry and Craig, set out to break the record for longest kiss in a 32-hour marathon—the story of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of LGBTQ men lost to AIDS in the former generation. While they tell this story and muse on their own lost lives, they also explore the lives of other teen boys coming out, establishing gender identity, and exploring long-term relationships.

What I loved: If everything was a satisfactory enough answer, I would say everything, but more explanation is probably needed. David Levithan’s writing style in Two Boys Kissing is both beautiful and lingering, perhaps because its voice is so unique. Using “we” as a narrator is difficult to pull off, but nobody could narrate this story quite so well as the chorus of AIDS victims. Their stories of love and devastating loss to illness paint so much history onto the voices of those in the present, both their joys and their own sadness. The experimental style pays off and really characterizes the book’s tone.

Although many characters are introduced within a short time, Levithan gives each of them a unique voice and story in a way that feels like it really grasps the queer community. Among Levithan’s characters are a trans man trying to navigate his sexuality, a teenager losing hope (and himself) on dating apps, and two boys who face both praise and discrimination to beat a Guinness World Record. Stories so different (especially when juxtaposed with such a unique narrator) make for a feeling of connection and that these stories, and the stories of all people, are more alike than different.

Quote: “Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody? And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?”

Recommended: Yes. David Levithan is one of my staple for wonderful YA writers, especially when it comes to LGBTQ fiction. He never fails to disappoint when exploring the diverse relationships, emotions, and lives people lead in the queer community.

This novel is both sweet and sorrowful, and while mourning the past, it also leads to hope for the future. I’d recommend it to anyone from around young teen years and up.

Next week: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, who may have become one of my new queer YA staples as well

Trans Representation in YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Note: After some thought, I have decided to post YA reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, I feel that although I hope to review any contemporary YA book that holds a strong sense of meaning, it will be a good way to raise more visibility for LGBTQ YA in particular. When I was a teenager, I wish we had as much access to queer YA novels as queer teens do now. With all these amazing books out there, I feel a need to spotlight them in case there’s a LGBTQ teen out there who needs it.

Second, it will also help me keep up with my reading goal this year (as I am currently a little behind). I hope you find these reviews helpful and give you a good idea of what to check out next from your local bookstore or library. Let me know in the comments if you have any book suggestions!

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Title: When the Moon Was Ours

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a tale of magical realism that stings of emotions strongly felt in our world, close friends Miel and Sam are as equally unique as they are mysterious: roses grow and blossom from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the trees. When the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches, want Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam and Miel must face hard questions about love, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Review: Initially, I was drawn to this book because I read that one of the protagonists (Sam) was a transgender man. Although luckily, queer representation in YA fantasy is on the rise, I had yet to read a fantasy novel with a trans character (let alone a trans protagonist).

Yet the most beautiful thing about this book is that being transgender is just one aspect of Sam: it is a vitally important aspect of him, and throughout the novel he explores how to reconcile his gender identity, but he is also an artist painting moons to make the forest brighter, a son seeking love and acceptance from his mother, and a kind-but-conflicted boyfriend to Miel.

Too often in queer YA, it feels like the protagonist’s story is reduced to coming out as gay or trans–and while those stories are important to tell, people are so much more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sam and Miel, as well as the other characters, felt human. Overall, this book was very character-driven. As a reader, I felt so strongly pulled into the characters’ world that the emotions they felt, I felt alongside them.

Overall, this novel is about self-exploration and reconciling who you wish you were with who you are. It doesn’t present any easy answers, nor was it meant to, as we don’t often get those in life. The way this book handles social issues such as queer identity and racism is subtly well-done, with respect for these issues in reality evident in the way the author handles them.

What I loved: When the Moon was Ours is a work of magical realism, just as whimsical and beautifully-written as books in this genre tend to be. Blurring the edges between fantasy and reality allows McLemore to present powerful thoughts. The prose was as magical as the plot itself and gave a sense of allure and true magic.

Much of the story is told through metaphor and allusion: for those who prefer plot over character development, this may be a little frustrating, but for me it painted a vivid and compelling picture.

In addition to queer representation, the author also brought in themes of cultural identity and racism. Sam grapples with his identity as an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, realizing that his identity as male is so much more than the cultural role of bacha posh he had initially assumed. Miel investigates her identity through her Latina heritage through legends, language, and Spanish tradition.

In the author’s note, McLemore talks about her husband’s transition and how they as a couple came to know so much about one another as they grappled with difficult things. She wrote about seeing her husband’s struggle in his eyes as a teenager and how, though transitioning has been difficult as any challenge is, she has seen him become free.

I try to be a pretty strong person, but admittedly, I got a little teary-eyed as I read it. Someday, I hope to find someone as caring and understanding as the author is with her husband.

Quote: “He would never let go of Samira, the girl his mother imagined when he was born. She would follow him, a blur he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye when he stood at the counter, making roti with his mother. Or he would see the silhouette of Samira crossing the woods, wearing the skirts that fit her but he could never make himself fit. Maybe one day he would see her shape, her dark hands setting the lantern of a hollow pumpkin into the water, candle lighting the carves shapes.

“But this was what she would be now, his shadow, an echo of what he once was and thought he would be again. She was less like someone he was supposed to become, and more like a sister who lived in places he could not map, a sister who kept a light but constant grip on both his hand and his grandmother’s.

“No one could make him be Samira. Not him. Not the Bonner sisters. Not the signatures on that paper.”

Recommended: Highly. While this book is of course excellent for trans or queer-identifying readers, the way it handles identity is pertinent for anyone who’s trying to discover themselves in a conflicting world.

With prose so beautiful and characters so nuanced as these, I have to recommend this for all lovers of magical realism and an emotionally-charged story. I may, however, recommend this more for older teens because it does have some sex scenes (although with minimal detail and tastefully-handled).

Resolutions

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Happy New Year’s Day! As tumultuous as 2016 was, I’m kind of going to miss it. What began as one of the hardest years of my life became one of the most worthwhile. Over the past twelve months, I have officially come out as transgender, finally (finally) attended an Aquabats concert, and started work as an RA alongside wonderful co-workers and residents.

Last January, I was struggling to overcome a bad bout of depression. My new year’s resolution was simply this: “Stay alive to 2017.”

Since I (somehow) completed last year’s goal, I have hopes. We’ll see how it went in 365 days. Here’s to a good, insightful year!

1.Write 1500 words per day.

From what I’ve heard, establishing a steady word count goes a long way. 2000-3000 would be a good end goal, but I want to work my way up to that. 1500 seems realistic with just enough challenge to make it interesting.

Going along with that, finish NaNoWriMo in November. This year is my year. I can feel it.

2. Read (at least) 100 books in 2017.

That evens out to (approximately) 1 books every 3-4 days. Hopefully, this will help clear out the backburner of books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to.

Beyond simple pleasure, I’ve heard that reading helps people become more empathetic, and reading improves your own writing skills. With any luck (and a little audiobooks to get through study sessions), this will be a do-able goal.

3. Every day, get to know someone better.

On the spectrum of extroversion and introversion, I lean towards reserved by a wide margin. Sometimes, instead of getting to know and develop relationships with people, I keep to myself because it’s easier when I really could do more.

Relationships are the most important aspect of our lives. They are our main (and, really, only) source of happiness. What I hope to gain from this is getting to know and understand people on a deeper level, both those I already know and those who I meet in everyday circumstances.

In terms of application, I want to try pushing myself to talk to others and listen to them as well as working to develop closer relationships with them.

4. Maintain the six dimensions of wellness each day.

Initially, this goal was going to be “eat less cookies and not be single.” But when I informed a friend about this, he said that it might be more helpful to focus on overall health and wellness rather than… those goals in particular.

Focusing on the six elements of wellness (occupational, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual) may help overall well-being more than the prototype goals.

In practice, I’m thinking of trying to do an activity that promotes each of these dimensions. For physical fitness, this might mean exercising or, well, eating less cookies. Spiritual wellness might involve yoga or reading from a spiritual book. And so on.

5.  Overcome evil with good.

A couple of days ago, I came across this quote: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

For me, this is not necessarily a moralistic thought. In 2016, there were some dark moments: both on the worldwide and the individual moments. When faced with hardship, sometimes I worry that the bad will overcome the good, and I lose hope.

Yet last year, despite painful moments, goodness always came through. It came through the people and the kindness they showed me. In the end, the little things outweighed the bad. When hardships happen this year, I hope to respond with compassion and try to bring light to my life and the lives of others.

And there we are, five resolutions. 2016, we hardly knew ye. Good luck in 2017! I hope it’s a prosperous year for you and that you’re able to accomplish whatever resolutions you have, or at least make progress in this crazy thing that we call life.