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 bei