Looking for a new middle grade novel to offer to your 8-12 year olds, or to read to them? Lisa Bunker's Zenobia July is a great option. Before you read, here's a primer:
Targeted Ages: 8-12.
Plot: After her parents die, Zenobia July moves in with her lesbian Aunties. Having been raised in a conservative, southern, religious household, Zenobia's transition is twofold: she grapples daily with both her gender transition to a girl, as well as her shift into a socially and politically liberal household.
At her new middle school, Zenobia befriends several kids, including genderqueer Arli, who chooses to use the pronouns vo/ven/veir.
Through the Aunties' friends, Bunker introduces "chosen family," which is common in queer culture. As Zen adjusts to her vastly different lifestyle, she finds a mentor and confidant in Uncle Sprink, who performs as a drag queen in his spare time. Upon meeting Sprink, Zen's Aunt winks at Zen, commenting, "You've got all sorts of aunts and uncles now...perhaps you didn't realize." Sprink replies, "The village it takes!"
The secondary plot is engaging and keeps the story from becoming one-note. When a hacker posts racist and xenophobic messages on the school's website, Zen uses her Internet prowess to help investigate the incident. Zen's technological abilities and determination paints her as multi-faceted, instead of just being known for her identity as trans.
Where the book succeeds: Author Lisa Bunker not only emphasizes the emotional and physical elements of gender transition, but also the social elements. In several instances, Zenobia navigates social interactions with other girls, wherein the reader is privy to her internal dialogue. Additionally, Bunker includes references to social interactions where trans people are constantly on high alert, terrified that they will be outed. In one interchange when a new girl asks "May I ask you something?" Zenobia worries, 'Had she been found out? Was she about to be outed?... Not trusting speech, she did her best to prepare herself.' When the girl simply asks if Zenobia would like to come over to her house, Zen relaxes and is able to continue chatting.
Where the book falters: Though Zenobia befriends a genderqueer person (Arli), a black Muslim girl (Chantal), and an Asian trans boy (Elijah), the narrative is largely white. There is one attempt to show Chantal as a strong, independent girl, but otherwise she exists in the story as the victim of anti-Muslim hate speech.
Vocabulary: pronouns, drag, hippie, hacker, cyber, hard drive, interlude, Muslim, IP address, anime, punk, cul-de-sac, Red State/Blue State, suicide, genderqueer, stealth, "101," matriarch, cyber tracker, viral, consonants, vowels.
Content warning: The book includes a few mentions of the possible suicide of Zenobia's dad, but does not discuss it in detail. There is anti-Muslim speech expressed on the school's website. Also, a few curse words are used.
Want to buy it? We recommend that you visit your local bookstore, and ask them to order it if they don't have it in stock. However, we know that some people prefer Amazon. If you do purchase books through Amazon, we ask you to consider clicking here to purchase Zenobia July. We get a little of the proceeds, so we can continue to offer reviews of fabulous gender inclusive children's literature just like this.