Zenobia July

Written by Lisa Bunker, published by Viking, an imprint of Random House, 2019

So much is NEW in Zenobia July’s life.  She has just moved cross-country from a small town in Arizona to Portland, Maine to live with Aunt Lucy and her wife Aunt Phil after her conservative evangelical father has died (her mom died when she was little).  In Arizona, she lived as a boy, existing mostly online working on impressive coding and computer skills, while hiding from an impossible life.  This unexpected new beginning in a new place is an opportunity to live openly as the girl she has always known herself to be.  On the first day at Monarch Middle School, Zenobia is nervous because no one knows anything about her background, and she wants to keep it that way.  Her hair is still not as long as she wishes it could be and when she looks at her reflection in mirrors, always there is some boy staring back at her.  Usually a lot.  She makes a new friend, Arli, who invites Zenobia to join a lunch table which includes several kids who have trouble fitting in.  Arli is a word geek, and is gender queer (vo, ven, veir pronouns) which has caused troubles at home.  Another friend, Dyna is Muslim, wears a hijab, and speaks with an accent as she is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Clem, sports a buzz cut on one side of his head and long bright-blue hair on the other, tied back in a half ponytail. 

When someone posts hateful memes on the school’s website, Zen knows she has the computer skills to catch the hacker.  But is it worth the risk of exposure that increased attention will bring?  And can she hold herself together in the face of the multiple challenges of a new school, a new family, the roller coaster ride of presenting as her true gender for the first time, and still not being ready to come out to anyone at her new school? 

This fun summer read includes a lot of middle school drama and it’s not all related to Zenobia’s gender.  There are mean girls and boys at school who tease and bully.  The aunts are wonderfully loving and supportive, yet they are still learning how to be parents themselves.  There is also Grandma, who doesn’t quite get it, but is trying hard to understand because she loves Zenobia unconditionally and wants the best for her.   Finally, there is Uncle Sprink, the fun-loving friend of Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil, who takes Zenobia shopping for new girl clothes and gives fabulous tips on applying makeup.

A bold, heartfelt story about a trans girl solving a cyber-mystery and coming into her own.  Zen is a good role model for being yourself and learning how to find and open-up to people you can trust, while creating safe but not hostile distances from those you can’t.  This book is highly recommended for middle schoolers.

Lisa Bunker, the author of Zenobia July writes on her website – I identify as Lisa, as a human, as a parent and partner and sibling, as an American, as a writer, and as a trans woman.  And as an activist, a musician, a UU, a word geek, a chess player, etc. etc.  “Trans” means that I was born anatomically male but felt a persistent and powerful sense of wrongness (dysphoria) trying to inhabit a male body and enact maleness in the world.  Between 2008 and 2015 I underwent legal, medical, and social transition, and now live as a woman.  My dysphoria is not gone, but it is reduced to manageable levels, and for the first time in my life I feel fully alive and free.  Lisa is also an American politician who was first elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2018 and re-elected in 2020.


This book review was submitted by Stand with Trans board member Barb Shumer, who is a retired public librarian.

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