Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Two things are keeping me up at nights … the recent Rutgers’ freshmen incident which prompted me to post a tragedy-turned-happy story last Thursday (if you haven’t seen it already, please, please watch Ellen DeGeneres’ wake-up-call here), and viewing a frightening documentary, Race to Nowhere, about the unbearable pressures student face today that every parent needs to see.
The bottom line is … WHAT are we doing to our kids …?
Although it’s three years old now, Parrotfish couldn’t be more timely. We should all be reading (or listening to a spot-on recording by Sunil Malhotra) this book with our teenagers.
Angela Katz-McNair has been home-schooled most of her life, but is now a junior at the local high school. She’s cut off all her hair, bound her chest, and started dressing in men’s clothes she picked up at the local Goodwill. The oldest of three kids, she’s always been more like a son to her father, bonding over the annual reconstruction of the lavish holiday spectacle that overtakes their front yard every Thanksgiving weekend.
But this year, Angela has a major announcement … she’s not Angela anymore, but Grady … a teenage boy. Her mother is bewildered, her father silent, her younger sister outraged, her younger brother nonplussed … and Grady hasn’t even gone public yet with his new transgender identity.
In the microcosm of school, Grady’s announcement has immediate – and dividing – results.
Grady’s corner is protected by Sebastian, the brilliant school dweeb, who initially asks Grady to the fall dance; he’s the one who excitedly tells Grady about female parrotfish that change their gender to become alpha males. Much to Grady’s shock, the P.E. teacher proves to be a staunch ally, proving incredibly helpful with the practical logistics of being transgender – girls’ or boys’ locker room??!! And then there’s Kita, the gorgeous hapa Japanese girl who just might be the love of Grady’s young life.
The less-than-friendly other side is controlled by alpha bully Danya who labels Grady a deviant and warns everyone else to stay away from him. Even Grady’s childhood best friend Eve meekly complies, fearful that she will lose her new social standing in Danya’s elite posse. Spoiler alert here … but Danya’s bullying has no bounds, even suggesting (demanding) that Grady commit suicide to save the rest of the school from his unacceptable life choices.
Author Ellen Wittlinger creates Grady’s world with deft accuracy, filled with contemporary details and all-too-real situations (what is Grady supposed to do when he gets his period?). Wittlinger empowers Grady and his friends with true agency, helping them discover their voices through tears, frustration, laughter, anguish, and surprising resilience.
Read, read, read with your children. Protect them. Teach them ‘normal’ comes in every color, shape, size, preference. Empower them with knowledge and tolerance before you have to let them go.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult