Earlier this month, I spent a morning speaking with Stonewall Award-winning children's author Kyle Lukoff. We discussed his debut middle-grade novel, Too Bright to See, dealing with transphobic readers and the art of writing queer fiction.
Too Bright to See (2021) is a middle-grade novel about a young transgender boy named Bug. It's the summer before he and his best friend, Moira, begin middle school. While Moira is stressing over makeup, crushes, and wanting to reinvent herself, Bug is preoccupied with the ghost haunting his family home. Too Bright to See is a wonderful novel about family, coming out, and learning who you are meant to be.
“A gentle, glowing wonder, full of love and understanding.” – The New York Times Book Review
Shifter Mag: Can you tell me about your process with writing Too Bright to See?
Kyle Lukoff: My process is boring. I usually write in the mornings. I wake up around 8 a.m., have some coffee and cereal, then sit at my desk and work for a couple of hours. For Too Bright to See, I started writing it in 2015. I wanted to give up on it because I didn't think I could do it, then I sort of tried again. I wrote a few more chapters, and I was like, this is terrible, I should give up. So then I gave up for a couple of years, and I only picked it up again in 2019, and I forced myself to finish it. I've never fully believed I was a particularly good writer, but I have accepted that other people think I am, which is nice.
SM: Why did you choose to write children's books specifically?
KL: Young adult books are so long. There are so many words in them! I mean, I started writing children's books because I wanted to see if I was good at it. It turns out people think I am, which, again, is very nice of them.
SM: Do you have any upcoming projects?
KL: Yeah! I have eight more books coming out eventually. I can't talk about many of them because they haven't been announced, but I have a picture book biography coming out next summer about Gavin Grim. He and I worked together on the book, it's called If You're a Kid Like Gavin, and I'm very excited about it. I also have a book for babies, an early chapbook series and another picture book coming out eventually, someday. And then I have another novel — it's not related to Too Bright to See, but I actually might like it better. It's way more queer and way more trans. It's also funny. I'm very excited, and it allows me to explore extremely complicated questions about different trans experiences based on age, generation and location. This new book is entirely about intracommunity conflict, what we say to each other and how we treat each other.
SM: I was not shocked, but I was very disturbed when I read about the school district(s) that had banned Call Me Max, especially Texas. Seeing that kind of a reaction to a book about a transgender child was harrowing. What was your experience dealing with all of that?
KL: I was actually talking to my friend about that yesterday. My friend was saying, "Oh, I couldn't deal with that, you are so strong." And I was like, no, I hate them. Their opinion doesn't hurt my feelings because I hate them. It was hard — the thing that was the hardest was knowing that there were queer and trans kids and other people in that area who had to hear that said about them. For them, it was their neighbors, teachers, school counselors and principals. Whereas for me, I was home in Brooklyn. It was people that I hate rehashing the same talking points that have been used against trans people for decades. It was stressful because I was aware it could potentially escalate into worse, but I didn't get any death threats or anybody showing up at my doorstep.
Like I said in my keynote speech for ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom Awards 2021, transphobia was harder to deal with as a librarian, but, as an author, I'm like, yeah, no. You're wrong, and I hate you, so you're not going to hurt my feelings. You're not going to make me second-guess myself because you are literally the people I am fighting against with my work. The fact that they had this response means they now see me as a threat which is good because, to them, I am. I am threatening their vision of the world, and that's my goal.
SM: Absolutely. On a more positive note, I'm obsessed with the way you tell trans stories. I love how you write characters that are LGBTQIA+ without making that their only trait. What has your experience been crafting characters like that? Have you ever had anyone demand that you write your characters differently?
KL: When I was first trying to sell When Aidan Became a Brother, I got extremely conflicting feedback. I had people who were like, "it's too on the nose, it's too direct," and then I had other people who were like, "this isn't really about him being trans, and that's what we want."
I realize that a lot of cis readers and cis people in publishing don't really have a concept of what a trans life can look like when transness is something that's fully integrated into a person's experience. I talk a lot about how there tends to be two major camps of LGBTQIA+ themed books. There's one where queerness is centered as the primary conflict or thing to solve: the problem is that you came out and people are mean to you or you're closeted and you don't know what to do. The other major school of thought is that you can reference queerness as an ancillary detail, but it doesn't matter. Like, you just so happen to be queer. It's a story about climbing Mt. Everest and you just happen to be a lesbian, trans or whatever. And it doesn't inform the character or the plot in a deeper way. That has not been my experience in either direction.
I sometimes think about my queerness as the salt in my life. It's in every morsel, but it is not the dominant characteristic. Without it, life would be an entirely different experience — and it would be worse because you need salt. I mean, salt is great. I'm Jewish, so I eat a lot of salt. I try to write stories where queerness is incorporated in that way — where the story would not work without it because it's central and ingrained in every moment but it's not posited as a problem to be solved.
SM: As a queer person, I read a lot of LGBTQIA+ fiction, and so much of it presents queerness as this problem to be solved, as you say. I think there is a need for happy queer fiction.
KL: I don't want to tell other authors what to do and I especially don't want to critique my trans colleagues. I can only control the books that I write, that's all. I know that some readers have real-life experiences where their queerness causes conflict and they want to see it reflected in fiction. That's just not the story I want to tell. A story that revolves around coming out, transphobia or homophobia or whatever, feels like it continues to center cis people because it's reactionary. It's like, these are the reactions from cis, het people that I am responding to, so it's still centering them.
Whereas, in Aidan, Aidan is very much centered because it's about him teaching his parents and not his parents reacting to him. In Too Bright to See, the character doesn't come out until the very end, but it's an internal conflict about learning who you are without external restrictions placed upon that. So, I try not to include too much of it in my books because I'm not interested in what cis, het people think of me.
SM: How have you arrived at this carefree attitude?
KL: Well, first of all, I'm not carefree. I'm full of anxiety. Also, I'm 37 — I'm old. I came out as trans when I was, like, 20 so I've been doing this for 17 years which is pretty much my entire adult life. It's all I've ever known. I've also been really lucky to live in New York City for almost my entire life. I've always been able to surround myself with almost exclusively queer and trans people.
I don't want to critique my colleagues for writing different stories than me because I know my experience is very specific, and I am very lucky. If your experience is different — if you're living without a large, accepting community around you, you're earlier in your journey, or you're younger — it's just a radically different experience of transness. This is why I don't want to tell other people what not to write.
I feel grateful that I have been able to live such a fully integrated life. It's sort of where my ideas for stories come from — not necessarily from my life because I don't have a baby sibling, I didn't grow up in Vermont, and I've never been haunted by a ghost — but I think because I haven't been required to constantly react to or center cis people in my life as a trans person, it means that my imagination has had the freedom to grow beyond those constraints.