Book review: "Zenobia July" by Lisa Bunker 🌈
“Zenobia July” is a heartwarming, middle-grade novel about a transgender girl who starts her new life in a new town with her aunts.
I received this book from Penguin Teen Canada in exchange for an honest and free review. It sounded like a perfect read for Pride Month.
Zenobia July is starting a new life. She used to live in Arizona with her father; now she's in Maine with her aunts. She used to spend most of her time behind a computer screen, improving her impressive coding and hacking skills; now she's coming out of her shell and discovering a community of friends at Monarch Middle School. People used to tell her she was a boy; now she's able to live openly as the girl she always knew she was.
When someone anonymously posts hateful memes on her school's website, Zenobia knows she's the one with the abilities to solve the mystery, all while wrestling with the challenges of a new school, a new family, and coming to grips with presenting her true gender for the first time. Timely and touching, Zenobia July is, at its heart, a story about finding home.
I am a picky reader. The book has to grip me from the very beginning, either by its plot or writing style. I enjoy reading middle-grade novels, but they really have to stand out in terms of the language, or I find them boring (I know, I know, they are targeted at a certain age that I do not belong to, but I firmly believe that books should not talk down to readers).
Thankfully, “Zenobia July” turned out to be a lot of fun. The writing style is engaging and flows smoothly, which would appeal to readers of different ages, children and adults alike.
Even though it is, ultimately, a coming of age and transition story, the plot does not focus only one that. Zenobia is a skilled hacker and involves herself into the investigation of a cyber attack on the school’s website. Self-conscious of her body and socially awkward, she feels the most comfortable in the dark corridors of an online gaming platform, where, unlike in her life, she is in control of her life.
Going into this book, I was slightly worried about how the transgender story would be handled in it. It turned out to be one of the most touching and genuine stories that I have ever read. Lisa Bunker does a fantastic job describing pain, frustration, and anxiety that Zenobia feels towards her growing and changing body.
There is a scene in which Zenobia tries to pluck her eyebrows for the first time - it was both funny and touching, and took me by surprise by how realistic it was.
Zenobia’s story is not the only one that deserves attention. The book has great conversations on gender and gender identity, in general, and has the representation of gender fluidity, asexuality, drag queens, same-sex relationships - to name the few.
It is often the case that in LGBT+ coming of age stories, adults play a role of adversaries and the protagonists rarely get support from their immediate families. What I liked about “Zenobia July” is that not only Zenobia gets fantastic support in the face of her aunts but also other adults in the storey. It may not be easy for middle-grade readers to understand the motives of adults in a story, so the author uses an interesting approach, in which she includes little thoughts snippets from the adults in Zenobia’s life. I think it is an excellent way to help readers connect with adult voices in the story.