Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

Published: 10th July 2007 (print)/22 December 2009 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Simon Schuster/Audible Studios
Pages: 294/6 hrs
Narrator: Sunil Malhotra
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★ – 1 Star

“Last week I cut my hair, bought some boys’ clothes and shoes, wrapped a large ACE bandage around my chest to flatten my fortunately-not-large breasts, and began looking for a new name.”

Angela Katz-McNair has never felt quite right as a girl. Her whole life is leading up to the day she decides to become Grady, a guy. While coming out as transgendered feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reaction he gets from everyone else. His mother is upset, his younger sister is mortified, and his best friend, Eve, won’t acknowledge him in public. Why can’t people just let Grady be himself?

Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in some unexpected places — like the school geek, Sebastian, who explains that there is precedent in the natural world (parrotfish change gender when they need to, and the newly male fish are the alpha males), and Kita, a senior who might just be Grady’s first love.

Why did I read this? I saw three one star reviews before I started but decided to see for myself. Yeah, no. One star is about right. Look, it isn’t the worst book I have read, but the fact it is trying to tell a trans story and if I, with my limited knowledge and experience, know that this is a terrible story then I can only imagine how any trans people reading it must feel.

I disliked this pretty early on. There is one sentence that told me this story wasn’t going to be right and it only got worse as it went along. The entire thing revolves around Grady and his attempt to be himself. Commendable, brave, all those things in a small town USA high school of course were going to be a challenge, but where Wittlinger has failed is she’s made these big emotional and social changes into small hurdles that all get overcome and resolved in the space of a few weeks and now everything is ok. I felt it brushed over trans issues quickly and at times barely mentioned anything about them at all.

Away from that, the characters themselves had no depth, they are forgettable, one dimensional, and honestly some of things coming out of their mouths is problematic on a whole different level. They are quick things, often said in a single sentence but stick with you. There’s racism, fatshaming, whatever it’s called where we’re still apparently making fun of people for “being a geek”, plus there’s a whole thing about trying to hook up with a girl who has a boyfriend. It’s as if Wittlinger needed to make everything around Grady nice so when the few bad things happen it stands out, but also have everyone around him be less somehow, so these key characters could feel superior. It felt weird and grubby at times and I hated reading about the mocking of these characters.

The one saving grace of this story is that it’s short. Malhotra does an ok job on narration, there isn’t much distinction in his voices for each character but I was too focused on the issues with the writing to worry too much about the voices. The stereotypes, the sexism, and the insensitivity throughout is astounding and it is evident Wittlinger has no concept of what being a boy means other than a short haircut and typical boy clothing. I am so glad I have read and know there are better trans books out there to enjoy because if this was my first point of call to books about coming out or an introduction to the trans community I would not only horribly misinformed but incredibly disappointed.

You can purchase Parrotfish via the following

 Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Fishpond | Amazon

Amazon Aust | Audible

Blinky Bill and Nutsy (#3) by Dorothy Wall

Published: 1937 (print)/05 June 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Angus & Robertson/Bolinda Publishing
Pages: 156/2 hrs and 56 mins
Narrator: Julie McGregor
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Classic
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

While telling the adventures of Blinky Bill, a naughty little boy in the form of a koala, the stories also present messages of conservation. Blinky Bill is known for his mischievousness and his love for his mother. In general throughout the stories he does things that are realistic for koalas as well as things that child readers would like to do. Dorothy Wall tells the stories directly to the children and Blinky often interacts with the readers in an introduction. Her dedications are often to ‘All the Kind Children’, with her own son Peter and other common Australian names of the 1930s appearing. The books are also fully illustrated by Dorothy Wall herself.

The third and final Blinky Bill book brings the adventures of the rambunctious koala to an end and introduces a whole new set of characters to get to know. Gone are the days of the same few characters, now there’s a heap of new names and creatures to get to know. If you’re like me and grew up in Australia in the 90s, you will recognise many of these characters from the television series, the difference is the story is not the same at all.

Wall has turned this simple bush story into a strange tale about animals behaving more and more like humans in ways that don’t even make sense. It’s gone from animals with a society but still behaving like animals to a complete anthropomorphising of these characters with chequebooks and boarding houses, hair getting put in rollers and the need for potato bins. They are now living their lives like humans but in animal form.

From waxing lyrical about the wonders of zoos at the end of book two, Wall opens book three showing us the animal abuse suffered and the desperate need to escape. The inconsistencies are annoying to read about, especially when there are so many contradictions not only in previous books but in the same story. The established society had changed so much and with new characters it was like a new story starting from scratch.

This time Nutsy joins Blinky on his adventures around the bush as she is the new addition to his family. Found lost and alone Mrs Koala invites her to stay and soon she is out adventuring with Blinky. With new friends like Splodge, Nutsy and Mr Wombat there is a consistency in the tales as these faces pop up again and again. Blinky has adventures around his home with the same mischief causing approach, angering various animals, helping others, and there’s the standard chapter where he and his friends make their way onto human land and cause chaos.

I know coming at this almost 100 years later will skew any interpretations but I can see how this would have been received by kids and parents when it was first published. They would related to Blinky being a naughty boy and getting into trouble as well as Mrs Koala’s frustrations. The fascination with Australian animals they may have seen near their homes or not see at all would be delightful, a long tradition seen with English literature coming to an Australian setting. It would also be a way to gain sympathy for these creatures, I can see Wall’s attempts at trying to sneak in references to helping them after fires and treating them like wild animals but it is quite subtle.

For all its faults from a modern perspective it was interesting to see the original story and the adventures of Blinky and the mischief he gets up to. Even though the audiobooks are three separate stories, the physical copies are always a collection of all three together. Listening to the audiobooks back to back was like reading the collection but it also made me realise the changes between each book. McGregor does a good job as narrator and the voices and tone she uses suited the style of writing. I missed out on the illustrations Wall had done scattered through the pages but looking at my paperback copy they are simple and are more decorative than anything else. As a classic it reads as such and it’s a good source material to gain inspiration from which is why Blinky Bill is still as captivating today.

You can purchase Blinky Bill via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Angus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Blinky Bill Grows Up (#2) by Dorothy Wall

Published: 1934 (print)/05 June 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Angus & Robertson/Bolinda Publishing
Pages: 150/2 hrs and 31 mins
Narrator: Julie McGregor
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Classic
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

While telling the adventures of Blinky Bill, a naughty little boy in the form of a koala, the stories also present messages of conservation. Blinky Bill is known for his mischievousness and his love for his mother. In general throughout the stories he does things that are realistic for koalas as well as things that child readers would like to do. Dorothy Wall tells the stories directly to the children and Blinky often interacts with the readers in an introduction. Her dedications are often to ‘All the Kind Children’, with her own son Peter and other common Australian names of the 1930s appearing. The books are also fully illustrated by Dorothy Wall herself.

After coming home to his mother after the last batch of mischief, Blinky has gone out adventuring again and he meets a whole host of new creatures. Wall has changed her approach with this story completely. While the first book kept the animal more natural, this one tends to stray into the anthropomorphising area. There are lucky dips and bazaars, and while the animals are still animals, they start participating in more human type activities. 

The koala culls are still underway, it is mentioned that 200 000 of them have been shot which explains why there are none left in the area. Again, no idea why, if there was a mention of the need for it other than fun it would still be terrible, but Wall makes it sound like they are culling them just because they can. Especially given the description of the killing of Blinky’s father in book one. Strangely enough Blinky himself is now not immune to killing. He easily advocates for killing other animals and even has animals killed himself for trivial reasons but is horrified when humans do it and sees it as unjustified. 

There is not real sense of how long Blinky has been gone on this round of adventuring, whether it is a few days or weeks, Mrs Koala seems happy to have him back each time though regardless. The Australian animals are on show once more, though Wall includes a hedgehog (though the illustration is of a porcupine) instead of an echidna which was curious. But possums, bull ants, goannas and lyrebirds all get to be on show. There’s also introduced species like foxes and rabbits who get their own part of the story too.

Where Wall starts to lose my understanding is when she informs the readers that koalas are happy in the zoo. This is part of the story where she breaks the fourth wall and address readers directly. The narrative style has always been one where Wall is telling Blinky’s story to a reader and even with this shift the tone remains the mystical lyrical style that brings you into Blinky’s world, but it also tells readers that instead of being happy in their natural habitat koalas love being at the zoo. She then contradicts herself by telling readers not to kidnap the koalas from the zoo and keep them as pets because they need to be surrounded by their bush, and yet my understanding is, being in the zoo, a 1930s zoo on top of that, is hardly any better.

There’s a lot more confusion with this second collection of stories than the first. Blinky still goes on adventures but they feel less connected. It jumps all over the place and it’s jarring to go from animals running a fundraising bazaar to Blinky orchestrating vengeance on predators to Blinky causing mischief at a farm to back in the bush meeting friendly animals like birds and hedgehogs. Granted this story has been strange from the start, but by the end it turned into a strange propaganda about zoos and animals and I was glad to be finished.

You can purchase Blinky Bill via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Angus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Blinky Bill (#1) by Dorothy Wall

Published: 1933 (print)/05 June 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Angus & Robertson/Bolinda Publishing
Pages: 100/2 hrs and 3 mins
Narrator: Julie McGregor
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Classic
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

While telling the adventures of Blinky Bill, a naughty little boy in the form of a koala, the stories also present messages of conservation. Blinky Bill is known for his mischievousness and his love for his mother. In general throughout the stories he does things that are realistic for koalas as well as things that child readers would like to do. Dorothy Wall tells the stories directly to the children and Blinky often interacts with the readers in an introduction. Her dedications are often to ‘All the Kind Children’, with her own son Peter and other common Australian names of the 1930s appearing. The books are also fully illustrated by Dorothy Wall herself.

When I say I have wanted to read this series for almost half of my life I would not be telling a life. I remember gazing in wonder at the huge, illustrated hardback collection at the bookshop and wishing I had the money to buy it. Even when I eventually bought the much smaller, cheaper paperback it still sat on my shelf for years waiting for me to pick it up. Now that I have read the stories, I’m glad I can tick it off because it is quite a unique, strange collection and yet one that has captured the hearts of people all around this country given he is still popular and being reimagined for kids today.

First published in 1933 the time period is evident in Wall’s writing style and the events in this book. The notion of Australian animals is a fascination and similar to May Gibbs with the Gumnut stories, telling stories of “the Australian bush” was the way to go. We’re introduced to Blinky after he’s born and how the animals around comment on him, watch him get named, and then, in a weird turn of events see him being nannied by a wallaby and almost get eaten by a snake. Why a newborn koala is being taken from the tree to the ground is not even the first question, the better one is why his mother can’t raise him herself. But such was the times I suppose and Wall is reflecting human behaviour onto these animals.

To give her some slight credit, Wall doesn’t overly anthropomorphise the animals. There is a group that live around the tree and are neighbours, animals hunt and are preyed upon, and we see Blinky’s early life. He is cheeky and mischievous, the iconic red “knickerbockers” on him from a young age.

Wall doesn’t hold things back either, there is a proper depressing description of the death of Blinky’s father in the first chapter, one told from both his perspective and the others. Definitely something I wasn’t expecting. It isn’t graphic, but it is rough to listen to. As Blinky grows up and explores the bush we see more of the animal life and the balance with humans and see the tense relationship between them.

Blinky has always been portrayed as being cheeky, but he is a lot rougher and harsher in the book. He hates his neighbour, he also runs away a lot when he doesn’t get his own way. The “reality of bush life” is through this story, Wall obviously wanted a cute tale about the Aussie bush creatures but it isn’t quite as cute with hunters culling koalas for no reason and animals preying on others, but it also has a simplicity about it where Blinky comes across various Australian animals and having brief encounters with them. Wall’s Australian knowledge only goes so far as Blinky’s mother is called Mrs Bear for most of the book until it switches to Mrs Koala and Blinky is called a cub not a joey, but given the actual weirdness in the story that part I might forgive her for.

You can purchase Blinky Bill via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Angus and Robinson | Project Gutenberg

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Beverly, Right Here (#3) by Kate DiCamillo

Published: 24th September 2019 (print)/24th September 2019 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Candlewick Press/Listening Library
Pages: 241/4 hrs and 8 mins
Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Junior Fiction
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Beverly put her foot down on the gas. They went faster still.
This was what Beverly wanted — what she always wanted. To get away. To get away as fast as she could. To stay away.

Beverly Tapinski has run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid. By now, she figures, it’s not running away. It’s leaving. Determined to make it on her own, Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mom, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her — and gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes. 

This is the third book in the Three Rancheros series but it isn’t crucial to have read them in any order, each story stands on its own. The main characters in this series all come from imperfect homes: their relatives are missing, have abandoned them, or have neglected them in some way. The central idea of going out and discovering who you are, where your place is in the world and your role within it can be found in each of these stories. This time we get to know Beverly, a girl whose friends are in different parts of the country and she is starting her own adventure. She is fourteen, on her own, and she is trying to work out who she is and what she wants to do.

Elmer and Beverly’s unorthodox friendship is a delight to read about. The runaway who doesn’t want help but still finds a way to accept it and have compassion for others is gorgeous. The way Elmer and Beverly use one another to improve each other’s lives while never quite admitting it to themselves is charming and adds humour to the story. I love the notion of found families and being surrounded by people who aren’t blood related but are family all the same. For Beverly to come to this town, stand on her own two feet and fight for herself is wonderful but DiCamillo never forgets that she is still a child who wants stability and support and is in need of love as well.

Marie does a great job at narrating. Her accents and voices for each character suit them and her voice keeps you in the timeless world of DiCamillo’s writing. Hearing the voices brings each fierce and proud statement from Beverly to life and the inflections and tones she gives to Elmer and other characters brings out their personalities and intentions really well. It is a quick listen, but with a full story packed into the short time.

Despite being set in the late 70s, the magical tone of DiCamillo’s writing makes the story feel timeless and there is a lovely southern charm that DiCamillo infuses this series with. Louisiana had it and now Beverly does too. The slow, profound stories are filled with heart and love and find your place in the wider world. You hear about their old lives but the new discovery they are on is the focus of the story. I’ve yet to read Raymie’s story that started this friendship but if it is anything like the other two I know I’m in for something special.

You can purchase Beverly, Right Here via the following

 Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Wordery

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

 

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