Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review: Parrotfish

Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish is a good-natured, compassionate novel about gender identity and growing up. Aimed at the Young Adult reader, Parrotfish is told in first-person narration from high school junior Angela's point of view. At the start of the novel, Angela--around Christmas-time--decides to change her name to Grady and her gender identity from female to male. This decision, needless to say, is not without its repercussions. Everyone in Grady's life reacts one way or another, and not always in the way he expected.

Dad, for instance, hardly blinks and eye when Angela becomes Grady. He's just happy that he still has the kid who enjoys doing the types of things he likes to do. Younger sister Laura is too obsessed with makeup, boys, and making it in high school to spend time building things with dad. And the youngest kid in the family, Charlie, is a computer-game addict who lives indoors. Charlie, like Dad, isn't too troubled by Grady's transformation. It takes Mom, however, some time to come around and Laura is afraid Grady will ruin her precarious reputation as a high school freshman.

Grady's friendships are altered as well. His best friend from childhood--Eve--has fallen in with the popular crowd and is freaked out by Grady’s new status as a boy. The school nerd Sebastian, however, takes Grady under his metaphorical wing and teaches him a lot about friendship and being one's self. Having always been an outsider and a genius, Sebastian's learned quite a bit about identity and self-worth before reaching high school.

These shifting relationships form the story of Parrotfish. But central to the novel as well are Grady and the other characters' considerations of what makes us male or female. When Grady's baby cousin is born, for example, he reflects:

"I knew the first question Mom asked Gail was, Is it a boy or a girl? Because, for some reason, that is the first thing everybody wants to know the minute you're born. Wouldn't want to mistake the gender of an infant! Why is that so important? It's a baby! And why does it have to be a simple answer? One or the other? Not all of us fit so neatly into the category we get saddled with on Day One when the doctor glances down and makes a quick assessment of the available equipment."

This is the heart of Parrotfish: What makes a human male or female? What does it mean if Grady is attracted to girls and not to boys? And what does physical attraction have to do at all with biological gender? Ellen Wittlinger handles these issues with sensitivity and, actually, no sexual content beyond high school crushes. Unusually, there are no real villains in the novel. Even the characters who act badly (high school bully, principal) have reasons for their behavior or rethink their points of view. Even mom, who is sad because she loses her Angela, learns to accept Grady wholeheartedly by the end of the novel. In the end, Grady finds his issues and struggles to understand himself to be universal: "Things change. People change. We spend a long time trying to figure out how to act like ourselves, and then, if we're lucky, we finally figure out that being ourselves has nothing to do with acting. If you don’t believe it, just look at me, the kid in the middle of the football field, smiling." Parrotfish is highly recommended for readers ages thirteen and up.