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which is a dated and, depending on the trans person, sometimes offensive term (though it may not have been as outdated when the book as written).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

Queer YA Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

 

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Title: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Author: Kathryn Ormsbee

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Tash Zelenka’s “Unhappy Families,” a modern webseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, goes viral and is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, she becomes friends (and maybe something more) with fellow Tuba nominee Thom Causer. But how can she explain to her budding crush—or anyone else—that she’s asexual?

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a heteroromantic asexual protagonist. Asexuality is something I still have a lot to learn about, but just for others who might not know the difference between asexuality and aromanticism: asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to others, and aromanticism is the lack of romantic attraction. Because I’m not asexual, I don’t know if I can comment on whether it’s an accurate portrayal but have seen generally positive reviews from the ace community. There is also a queer male relationship, but it’s not the main focus of the novel.

What I loved: Every character in Tash Hearts Tolstoy felt vibrant and alive, even minor characters that don’t get more than a few scenes in the novel. You can’t always say that, especially since too much backstory can sometimes weigh down a novel, but it really gave this one depth. It felt like dipping into someone’s memories of the summer before their senior year rather than just a simple YA romance. In terms of the romantic plot itself, that, too, was more complex than I thought it would be—a happy surprise. I didn’t expect the characters’ reactions to Tash’s identity, nor their internalized emotions, to happen as they did. Without spoiling the story, the romantic heart of the story doesn’t turn out as you think it will but still ends in a satisfying way.

And while I don’t identify as asexual, I have seen several reviews from ace readers that said reading this book was like stepping into light after a long time in the dark. It was also useful on a personal level because it helped me understand more about ace identities and complexities that happen when a romantic asexual person goes into a relationship with a non-ace person. Whether you’re familiar with the ace community or not, it’s an insightful and comprehensive portrayal without weighing the text down with paragraphs of explanations.

Quote: “If you want a chance at being happy, exist. Because yes, life can suck, but as long as you’re alive, there’s a chance you can be happy.”

Recommended: This was such a delightful story! I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a cute, quirky novel with plenty of diverse queer identities. And, of course, if you’re a fan of literary webseries like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries or (my personal favorite) Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Invite Only Casual Dinner Party / Gala For Friends Potluck, this also explores the “other side” of producing one—dealing with melodramatic actors, reacting to negative reviews, and managing a sudden tsunami wave of fame. It’s so wholesome, guys!

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.