MMGM and #IMWAYR (7/20/2020): Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (plus giveaway winner!)
Before we get started, I want to mention that the winner of my giveaway of Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy is...
Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who entered! Now, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker.
WOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Oh, sorry, I couldn't contain my enthusiasm for this book. Several years ago, MMGM showrunner Greg Pattridge recommended Lisa Bunker's debut novel, Felix Yz, and I must thank him for that recommendation, because I read and loved that book! (His review is here, and my review is here.) I bought a copy of Bunker's second book, Zenobia July, a while back, but I forgot to read it until now, and it is so good!!!
Zenobia July's life has just changed dramatically at the beginning of this book. Zenobia (or Zen for short) has moved across the U.S. to live with her married aunts instead of her father. A transgender girl, Zen uses this move and the resulting start at a new school as an opportunity to live as a girl for the first time. But being transgender isn't easy, and it's not like making friends and dealing with bullies is a piece of cake anyway (nor is living with people who have never raised kids, for that matter). But as Zen meets fascinating kids, becomes more comfortable with who she is, and uses her skills at coding and hacking to help the school find the hate-spreading vandal of the school website, she starts to realize that her new life might actually be pretty great.
There is so much nuance and joy and delight packed into this book that I truly could just go on and on and on, but I'll try to contain myself. First of all, the part of the description above that probably stood out to you most is that Zen is transgender, and, indeed, that is a very important aspect of this book. Zenobia July is an #ownvoices story, as Bunker herself is transgender, and I was really impressed with how Zen's experience of being transgender is depicted. Her dealings with body dysmorphia, misgendering, buying clothes, and being closeted are shown tenderly and skillfully—I definitely learned a lot. Also, like in Felix Yz, Bunker is basically determined to make up for the lack of LGBTQIA+ characters in literature by including as many as humanly possible in this book: there's Zen, her married Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil (just FYI, Aunt Phil does not seem to be trans—her name is just short for Philomena), her genderqueer friend named Arli, another transgender student at her school, and her aunts' friend, a drag queen who she calls Uncle Sprink. With all of the hate (specifically toward transgender people) being spread in the world of books by J.K. Trolling (pun intended), it's great to see a book doing everything it can to counteract bias toward LGBTQIA+ people, especially transgender people.
One particular topic in this book that I felt warranted its own paragraph is Zen's experience dealing with prejudice from the family she has left behind, from other people, and even from herself. Zen's father (who she no longer lives with in the book) was not remotely accepting of her being trans, and she struggles in the story to reconcile her good memories of her father with his harmful beliefs and abusive behavior toward Zen. Zen meets a girl at her new school named Melissa whose family is not accepting of transgender people either (although remember, she is not out at her school, even though she presents as a girl), and she has to think about if Melissa's beliefs (largely originating from her family) make her a bad person or just misguided. Finally, Zen herself learned many beliefs from her original family, and her realization that she is trans does not automatically negate the other prejudices she has learned; there are minor moments in the story where words Zen's father might have used to describe the people she is around jump back into her mind and make her feel prejudiced. All of these depictions are incredibly impressive; they both prevent this book from being one-sided and make it useful for kids in real life who can't just erase prejudice out of the world. (A series of recurring chapters where characters discuss in first person [not the third person used in the main chapters] how they perceive Zen further ensures that the story pays attention to (though does not validate) other viewpoints.)
There are a number of other things I love about Zenobia July. First of all, the characters in this book are fabulous! Zen isn't just a compelling protagonist, she is a protagonist who you would think of as just an awesome person in real life (which is surprisingly rare in books)! The side characters are excellent as well: I particularly loved Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil, who, despite being almost-polar opposites (one is a stiff professor, and the other is an optimistic almost-hippie), love each other and navigate the murky waters of raising a child quite well! (I would honestly read a spin-off book just about Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil.) The characters in this book all have their own interests (or "geekeries," as Bunker calls them), such as Zen's friend Arli's interest in words, or Zen's interest in coding and hacking (which is super-interesting to watch, even though it seems somewhat unrealistic at times—you hacked into your school's student information system, presumably made by a major manufacturer, and stole data out of it without getting caught???) In many ways, though, this book is a love letter to people's unique interests, and pretty much anyone who feels like they have weird hobbies or interests will feel at home in this book. Finally, Bunker's writing style is just fantastic; she has this incredible ability to be a touch snarky but also sincere at the same time, which makes this book incredibly fun to read!
Read this book!!! It's so rare that you find a book that tackles important topics delicately and sensitively but is also total fun to read, and I was so happy to find out that Zenobia July is one of those books! Perhaps the best praise I can give this book is that my sibling read it as well, and basically every day, I've been going over to them and exclaiming, "This book is so good!" (which has been driving them somewhat crazy)! I wholeheartedly recommend Zenobia July!
(Random P.S. I feel like it deserves mention that Bunker, besides being a fabulous MG author, is also a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives! How can she possibly do all of that at the same time?!)
Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Really good!