New Hampshire State Rep. and author Lisa Bunker’s Felix Yz and Zenobia July, aimed at middle school students, are both heavily populated with strong LGBTQ characters.
Felix Yz (pronounced “Felix is”) tells the story of a gay middle school boy fused with a hyper-intelligent fourth-dimensional alien (Zyx). Zenobia July is about a trans girl living a new life in Maine with her lesbian aunts. Like Zenobia, Bunker is also trans, and while she directs her work at mainstream middle school readers, the LGBTQ inclusion is intentional.
“I very much on purpose made a whole bunch of characters LGBTQ,” Bunker says. “There’s a whole bunch of people in the world who don’t realize that the queer community exists.”
The former community radio program director notes that requests from her own child and librarians lamenting the dearth of middle school books with strong LGBTQ themes both drove Bunker’s mission.
At the request of her child who identifies as agender, Bunker changed Felix from straight to gay. His crush on a classmate, Hector, became an important focus of the story. In Zenobia July, pages explode with LGBTQ characters who are both stable role models and a much-needed moral compass for others.
Despite the positive response to the book, Bunker laments that some critics complained that Felix Yz had apparently “exceeded some unspoken statutory limit” on the number of queer characters acceptable in middle school fiction.
The kernel of inspiration for Felix Yz came to Bunker as a teen. The idea was shelved until she took part in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge of writing a 50,000-word rough draft in one month. By then, the story had shifted from a focus on superpowers to more an examination of the impact on this young boy of living with another being inside him. The book itself follows the month before a dangerous, life-threatening surgery that removes the alien.
Zenobia July was inspired by the tragic 2014 death by suicide of Leelah Alcorn, an Ohio teen girl who was forced to undergo conversion therapy after coming out trans to her fundamentalist Christian parents at 14. Three years later, Alcorn took her own life and posted a suicide note on Tumblr, asking people to make her life and death mean something. Her note and story went viral, and Alcorn soon became the motivation to outlaw conversion therapy. Her untimely and unnecessary death hit Bunker especially hard.
“As a trans person myself, I was deeply moved by that, shocked by it,” Bunker recalls. “And my story brain started working on the question, ‘What did Leelah need that she did not have in her life in order to survive?’”
Zenobia July is her answer to Alcorn’s challenge. Unlike the Ohio teen, Zenobia is able to escape her fundamentalist Christian family when she moves to Maine to be raised by her lesbian aunts and their vibrant queer friends.
Both stories are a great way to provide young LGBTQ readers with books featuring positive queer role models giving examples of how to navigate a sometimes hostile world.