Last summer, I put in a ton of holds at the Detroit Public Library, and it just happened that I received Luna and Parrotfish at just about the same time. Luna centers around the namesake character Luna, a mtf trans teen struggling with her relationship with her “traditional” father and her distracted pill-popping mother. Parrotfish is the coming-out story of Grady, a ftm trans teen, following his ordeals with school, family and friends, and his family’s ridiculous Christmas tradition: turning their house into a living festive spectacle.
Having now read both, I want to talk about both at the same time. Comparing them seems unfair to me; just because they’re both “about” trans characters, doesn’t necessarily mean their comparable. But, I’d still like to look at both of them in terms of how they handle representation differently and why I think one does a better job than the other.
I was really excited to pick up Luna. It was on all three of the lists I used to create my Book Jar, so I had high expectations. I was disappointed rather quickly, and all three reasons mainly have to do with representation:
— It’s not a queer POV.
The story is told from the first person point of view of Regan, Luna’s het cis-gender sister. Though most of the book circles around Regan’s relationship to Luna, both past and present, Peters throws in a little love interest for Regan to “spice things up.” And to make matters worse, it’s your run-of-the-mill gooey “love at first sight, can’t think of anything else, fainting sighs” YA romance. If I wanted to read a typical het YA romance, I would have picked up any other of the million popular YA books. I picked up Luna because it’s touted as a quintessential, not to be missed, queer story. I wanted queer romance, and I felt cheated that I didn’t get it.
— Liam (Luna’s “male persona”) is the ubernerd.
Through most of the novel, Luna only comes out at night, with only a few plot-turning exceptions. For the most part, she stays in the safety of her sister’s room at 2 in the morning, trying on clothes and putting on make-up. All the other times we see her, she’s Liam. Luna calls it “her other skin.” When we see Liam, he’s the cool ubernerd: he’s the wunderkind genius at school (though he never attends throughout the entire novel except once. Again, plot point), he makes money by building personalized computers and testing video games for bugs, he writes his own video games, and he drives a Spider convertible he bought with his earnings. He only has one “flaw” so to speak. He’s trans! Gasp!
— In the end, all of Regan’s shitty behavior toward her brother gets handwaved.
The mounting tension of the novel is Regan slowly collapsing under the weight of her brother’s secret and his attempt to come out of the closet and live her life how she wants to, as Luna. In the novel’s climatic scene, Luna decides to come out at school, showing up (while Regan is with her love interest of course) and causing a mess of rumors and ridicule. Finally “fed-up” with her brother’s “selfish” behavior, Regan loses it and says some pretty shitty things to Luna, the gist of which is “you’ve ruined my life by being trans.” And if that isn’t bad enough, at the conclusion, Luna makes it all better with a handful of trans queer glitter. As they’re waiting for her flight to come in, Luna forgives her sister by, in essence, saying that her behavior was acceptable because she’s cis-straight and couldn’t possibly understand what Luna was going through. She goes as far as to say it was her fault for being selfish in making Regan keep her secret. Not only does this conclusion brush Regan’s shitty behavior under the rug, but it shifts all the blame onto Luna for being trans
Parrotfish, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of Grady, a transgender boy, struggling with telling his family and dealing with “it’s just a phase” backlash, the loss of his best friend to the queerphobic school bully, as well as the tirade of shit he has to deal with by being a newly out trans student at school. Wittlinger uses Grady’s sense of humor to deal with many of the same issues that Peters attempted to address, such as the chafe of social norms against non-conforming individuals. Grady has moments of self-doubt, moments where he’s afraid himself that maybe he is “just going through a phase,” which I found incredibly relatable. The representation in Parrotfish was just better, mostly because Grady is drawn as a real human being, with flaws, moments of self-doubt, moments of courage, and he grows from the beginning of the novel to the end. Parrotfish of course isn’t without its problems. Grady has a worrying tendency to pigeonhole girls who fall into traditional tropes of femininity (wearing/liking make-up, wearing low-rise jeans, etc) as flaky, shallow, and as his is the dominating pov, this has the effect of flattening their characters to tropes without the possibility of redemption. But, all and all, when asked for a recommendation, I would recommend Parrotfish over Luna any day of the week.