Why I Write Realistic and Relatable Young Rainbow Characters

by Lisa Bunker

Photo credit: SOPA Images, LightRocket Collection/Getty Images

I am not the first person to write about the importance of representation in kid lit, nor the thousandth, but as an out trans author of LGBTQIA+-themed middle grade titles, I do think I’m positioned to put my own inflection on the topic. So, here are three things I’m trying to accomplish by writing the stories I do.

Author Goal #1: I want all kids to have the chance to read realistic, human characters that feel like themselves. My sense of mission here comes from my personal experience of how it feels to not find such characters. When I was a shy, unexpressed trans girl making my way steadily through the juvenile section of my local public library back in the ’70s, I did not find a single book that had an out trans character in it. If I had, I might have been able to speak my truth much sooner. As it was, not seeing anyone like me in books (or in comics or movies or on TV or in the world), it took me well into adulthood to even get started on claiming my truest and best life.

My favorite feedback from readers is when I hear from a kid — or someone helping a kid find books to read — that one of my stories has become that child’s favorite re-read. I had books that I read over and over again too, and even though they didn’t show me myself directly, they still sustained me and gave me strength. It makes my heart glow to think maybe I’m helping other young rainbow humans in the same way.

Author Goal #2: I want to entice other readers to read about their rainbow peers. This one is a tough sell, I’m beginning to learn. I gather my books often get pigeonholed as “message” or niche books and only recommended to kids like those mentioned above. In hopes of breaking through that roadblock, I strive to craft stories that are compelling as stories and more than just “my teenage LGBTQIA+ life.”

In my first book, Felix Yz, Felix is incidentally gay, but the main plotline involves him being fused with an alien and counting down to a risky procedure to separate them. In Zenobia July, my new book, Zen’s trans identity is more central to the story — as the novel opens, she’s about to go to school as a girl for the first time — but it’s not the only thread. She is also a coder/hacker prodigy who solves a cybercrime. Both books are nerdy as all get-out too, so I hope to draw in the larger fringe reading population.

Author Goal #3: I want to depict the nurturing power of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is probably the edgiest of my three goals. In Felix, as an unpublished writer, I included lots of LGBTQIA+ characters just for fun and to see what it would look like. I was surprised by some Goodreads reviews that basically said “Too many!” as though there were an unspoken statutory limit. My reaction was to do the same thing again in Zen, and this time very much on purpose. As the story opens, she has lost her family of origin. How does she survive? Through the sustaining power of LGBTQIA+ friends and family of choice.

By writing realistic and relatable young rainbow characters, I hope to give solace to such humans and to help others come to see them as regular, unthreatening folks just like themselves. I hope to chip away at an overly binary definition of “normal,” which still prevents LGBTQIA+ youth from moving freely through the world as an accepted part of the gloriously jumbled mix of humanity.