Your New School Library: “Parrotfish,” “Down to the Bone” and “How Beautiful the Ordinary”

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

Down to the Bone takes place in the Cuban-American community in Miami, where if you’re a girl who likes girls, you’re degradingly called a tortillera. Laura, the teen protagonist, is a tortillera from the first page, deeply in love — is there any other way when you’re a teen?— with Marlena. Their relationship is a secret, however, until a nun at Laura’s Catholic high school finds and reads aloud to the entire class a sappy love letter from Marlena. When her true identity is suddenly exposed, Laura loses the majority of her childhood friends, is expelled from Catholic school, and is kicked out of her house by her Mami. And that’s just the first two chapters. Talk about a bad day.

Oh, and then Marlena? Heads back to Puerto Rico to marry a guy. Ouch. Laura is a sassy and vibrant character though, with some good friends — girls, boys, and bois included — to help her through the summer and figure her tortillera self out.

I did have a few issues with this story, mainly in the writing and in the development of some of the characters, particularly the two mothers — Laura’s Mami, and Viva, the mother of her best friend who she ends up moving in with. While Mami seems like the devil incarnate, Viva is almost too perfectly accepting and enthusiastic at all times. When parents can play such an important role in these novels, it’s important to paint them as the complex and human people they are. Dole also tries to sneak in some other extraneous issues, such as environmentalism, that fall flat.

Beyond that, though, there are so many refreshing and important things about this book. While the majority of the conflict revolves around “coming out,” Laura never denies her true feelings for women to herself. While many stories for youth build up to the “what am I feeling and is it okay to feel what I feel?!” figuring-out-who-you-are storyline, it’s nice to have a character who knows they like making out with girls from the first chapter on. For Laura, it just takes awhile to truly claim that out loud.

In addition, while the story is specific for the Cuban-American culture, this is such an empowering read for any girl in a hetero-male-religious-tradition dominated culture. Mami’s actions to Laura are horrific, but they’re not unrealistic. Yet the overall tone of the novel remains joyful and triumphant, exclaiming to readers that you can be young, gay, and Cuban, and that your life, thank heavens, can still be fun.

Parrotfish byEllen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster)

I consider Ellen Wittlinger to be one of the rockstars of queer teen lit, and Parrotfish is a perfect example of why. Our protagonist here starts as Angela Katz-McNair, daughter of two typically dorky-but-concerned parents, sister of irritable older-sibling Laura, best friend of Eve. But Angela has never really been Angela. Parrotfish tells the story of her real identity, which is actually becoming Grady. As he says at the end of the first chapter:

I wondered, even then, why I couldn’t be a boy if I wanted to. I wasn’t unhappy exactly; I was just puzzled. Why did everybody think I was a girl? And after that: Why was it such a big freaking deal what I looked like or acted like? I looked like myself. I acted like myself. But everybody wanted me to fit into a category, so I let them call me a tomboy, though I knew that only girls were tomboys, and I was not a girl. By high school I said I was a lesbian, because it seemed closer to the truth than giving everyone hope that someday I’d turn into a regular hairdo-and-high-heels female. I was just getting us all ready for the truth. I was crawling toward the truth on my hands and knees.

There are so many things I love about this novel. I love how clear-headed and honest Grady is, a truly likeable and relatable character who experiences an understandable range of disappointment and sadness without dropping into overburdened self-pity. While there are tough times in here, there’s also a lot of wonderful humor. I love the secondary characters, including his family and former best friend Eve, who seem cruel at times but are also vulnerable and real in their own quest for understanding. I especially love Sebastian, the nerdy boy who becomes Grady’s best friend. I believe it’s easy to understand my Sebastian love upon reading his reaction when Grady tells him his new name and identity:

Sebastian was staring at me by then, his mouth open wide, his eyes sparkling with amazement, as though I’d just announced my virgin birth. ‘Wow!’ he finally managed to say. ‘You’re just like the stoplight parrotfish!’”

Parrotfish, you see, as Sebastian explains, have the ability to change gender when they need to.

Mainly I love Wittlinger’s writing, and her ability to explain so many truths about being transgender without it feeling didactic, a major trap in queer lit for youth. Everything about Grady and his community seems natural, and by the end of the novel, as with all good novels, I felt grateful to have known them.

Please feel free to send me any book suggestions, queer youth resources, questions or thoughts! I am all nerdy ears. You can contact me at Jill.Guccini at gmail.com or follow me @daffodilly on Twitter.

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