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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: TOO BRIGHT TO SEE by Kyle Lukoff

Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Amanda Bishop.

In Kyle Lukoff’s TOO BRIGHT TO SEE we are introduced to Bug, a child who is grieving over the loss of their uncle during the summer before the start of middle school. Along with the loss of their uncle, they are also coping with the perils of growing up and not fitting in. Bug’s best friend is getting ready for middle school by learning about makeup, clothes, and crushes. But Bug isn’t interested in things like that and doesn’t understand why. When a ghost begins haunting Bug’s house, and more specifically Bug, they find out that this ghost is trying to tell them something important about who Bug is. 

Lukoff manages to weave together a ghost story that not only deals with an actual haunting, but also the ghosts that we live with, and what haunts us in terms of finding out who we really are. Bug does not have the understanding of what it means to be transgender and does not understand who they are yet. It isn’t until the ghost leads them on a journey of self-understanding that Bug can truly understand who they really are. The narrative helps us going through the journey with Bug and to really empathize with all that he is experiencing and feeling. 

I love how Lukoff transforms both the mystery novel and the coming-of-age novel into something wholly new, especially for it being his middle grade debut. In terms of Newbery criteria, I believe that Lukoff’s writing shines in terms of the development of the plot. Readers are taken along on the journey of Bug’s acceptance of who he truly is while empathizing with the perils of this age, which are particularly difficult for transgender children. This is a tender and beautiful book about identity, grief, and growing up.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Louie Lauer says

    Too Bright to See was an early favorite of mine for Newbery consideration. In addition to the strong plot development, as mentioned by Amanda, I also think that the development of the theme here is particularly strong. The themes of self discovery and confronting our “ghosts” is so beautifully woven into this chilling ghost story. As Amanda mentioned, Bug is confronting literal and metaphorical ghosts, which really helps to solidify one of the central themes. This is a perfect example of how fantasy or science fiction can be used to investigate important themes and human truths.

  2. Aryssa Damron says

    I really enjoyed the Author’s Note on this one and how Bug’s journey was explored in the genre

  3. Megan Howes says

    I thought that the characters were strong on this one, too. I love that Bug is so brave and thoughtful, and the journey into discovering who they are was very poignant and beautiful. I loved the theme of living your true life and respecting that others need to live theirs, too. When Bug discovers the papers in Roderick’s room and comes to a heartbreaking conclusion that maybe their family member wasn’t living their full life, was so impactful and touching. I could feel Bug’s pain for Roderick, and it really brought home the fact that we cannot discourage that in others. And the way Bug was so confident in revealing their true self, even though they were scared, was really inspiring.

  4. I feel like this was a very well-written book on a difficult but important topic. Again from my perspective a hard book to hand out to those in a younger age group, as I do feel this was a great middle school read. I do agree that the themes were handled extremely well by the author. This book reminded me of another book, ‘Monster Calls’ by Ness in regards to the haunting of the ghost that lives within us.

  5. Stephanie Saggione says

    This is another example of a book that will need a librarian or teacher’s help to find the right audience. It’s something that all kids would enjoy and learn from so it should be high on the circulation list. But I worry that only kids who are looking for a scary story will notice it.
    I thought this author did a good job establishing a setting that was full of discomfort- just enough skin crawling to remind readers of how their bodies feel when they are anxious. It started as creepiness from the haunted house but changed to include grief and gender identity.

  6. Too Bright to See used such a unique approach to addressing the theme of self-discovery and gender identity. LuKoff was clever to use the ghost story genre to address his themes. I also liked that Moira and the other girls were not portrayed as bullies, and they were not superficial stereotypes.
    All these things being said, I do have some misgivings.
    I think BUgs’s dreams are very unsettling, and at some places, it almost seemed to me as if Uncle Rodrick were trying to force BUg into something. THis aspect is difficult for me to explain. I know that Bug struggled with gender issues at the beginning of the book, so perhaps it took his uncle’s desperate help to make him admit who he was. However, I found the dreams, (particuloarly the hair cutting scene), to be disturbing. I even wondered if BUg had done the job himself. I also was disturbed by Moira cutting her foot on the nail polish bottle. I just found the ghostly activity to be a bit disstructive. Maybe I am overly sensitive.
    I also found the acceptance of Bug’s identity to be a bit too easy. It’s refreshing to see that he was accepted, (as many books do not show this aspecct well), but I thought it was a bit too simple.
    Overall, though, Lukoff’s book is unique and attention-grabbing. I think it will appeal to anyone struggling with finding their place in the world, but I also think it’s a book that parents and children need to discuss together.

    • Meredith, I also wondered about how easily Bug was accepted by the other kids once he came out, but then I thought, “why not?” We’ve got so many stories about kids struggling with acceptance, why not have a few where it goes easily, too? Kids need hopeful stories as well as hard ones, stories that include best-case scenarios as well as worst. Just because they currently happen as often doesn’t mean that they’re impossible, and it’s important to show positive possibilities, if only so kids know what to strive for as a society.

      I also see what you mean about Uncle Roderick being maybe a little destructive, but I’m not sure what other agency he would have as a ghost. He’s got a limited amount of power to do things and to communicate, so I also gave that a pass. I also don’t think he made Moira step on the nail polish, he just smashed it – it’s been a while since I read it, but didn’t she step on it by accident? Compared to other middle grade horror I’ve read, he seems fairly benign, but I see that point that sensitive children might get spooked.

      Personally, I love this one. I really hope it gets something.

    • Courtney Hague says

      Meredith — I agree with you that I was a little take aback by Uncle Roderick’s tactics. They definitely played into the horror tropes which make this books so effectively scary, but they also made Bug’s transition feel almost violent. (And as a cisgender woman, I do not feel qualified to speak on that topic much more than that, just an observation).

      I actually really loved how easily Bug was accepted by his family. It made complete sense with who his mother’s character honestly. And it was quite heartwarming especially after how scary the book was up until that point.

  7. Good points, Ms. HOgan. i’m not a huge ghost story fan, so perhaps my biases entered into this one. I personally thought Ophie’s Ghosts did a better job of addressing supernatural themes. HOwever, I see what you mean in your comments, and I agree that Roderick had limited means of communication. I think LuKoff explored his themes in a unique and compelling way. THank you for your thoughts.

  8. I had a hard time with this book because I feel that a lot of girls going into middle school are not necessary ready to be into makeup and boys and typical girly stuff, and I felt that it would be confusing to them if they happen to read this book at that time. They might assume that they are transgender, when they are really just late in development or have other things going on in their lives like not having a two parent loving relationship ship at home that makes them comfortable with how the opposite sex related to one another in a romantic way.
    I was a tomboy growing up and I remember being in 6th grade wondering if I was gay, because I wasn’t a typical girl. If transgender was a label in my day I would have totally jumped on the bandwagon, when I just needed a little more time to develop and i am very much girl. I understand that there are kids out there that are transgender or nonbinary, but the reasoning this author gave that made Bug decide that is what she is I felt was too hasty of a decision.
    I feel like this is a dangerous book for this age group n labeling yourself.

    • Megan Howes says

      People are transgender because that’s who they really are inside-it’s not a phase. There is not a lot of literature for kids out there who are transgender or nonbinary, and this will help them feel that they are not so alone. I know that there are children like Bug out here who will feel that they are heard and understood because of this book!

      • I know it is not a phase, that is not what I am saying. I just think that it could be confusing to kids who are going though a confusing time in their life because it is middle school. It felt to me that Bug was going through some pretty normal feelings that many girls may have and it didn’t feel like there was enough evidence in the story for her to come to the conclusion that she was transgender

      • I read this quite a while ago, but doesn’t Bug have struggles with feeling comfortable in his own body and with the mirror? I seemed to remember him struggling with these types of gender dysphoric feelings more than just being a tom-boy.
        This book will be so affirming to folks who REALLY need it, and I doubt it would be upsetting to those who don’t directly need it. Books that talk about gender more expansively help us all live more freely!

      • I agree that there needs to be books out there for kids that are transgender and nonbinary. I am just saying that I don’t think that this book did a good job of convincing me the Bug really is. I thought “George” was a much better book for this topic.

  9. Christy Brennan says

    I love what was mentioned above that kids need “hopeful stories as well as hard ones.” I too went back and forth on how quickly Bug was accepted by peers, and love that perspective. I think the themes were handled well by the author with such a unique approach. Self discovery and grief are presented in a way that is age appropriate for middle grade and also allows space for the reader to develop tremendous empathy for Bug. This is such a beautiful book about identity and grief – with ghosts. I can see how it’s also one that could help kids who are transgender feel seen in literature, in a space where there are still not tons of mirror texts written.

  10. Emily Smith says

    To me, what’s most effective in this book is setting. The house’s various haunting are described poetically to where the house is almost a character in itself.

    What I don’t love about this book, and if I remember correctly, I think someone else commented something similar on a previous post: It seems to me that Uncle Rodrick yanks Bug out of the proverbial closet. I’m grateful to have another one of too few books where a young character comes out as transgender and is warmly accepted. However, Uncle Rodrick essentially scares Bug into this monumental self-realization. I would have preferred Bug have that agency himself.

    • Aryssa Damron says

      I agree that the setting is the most effective element here. I also enjoyed the characterization of the mother, and struggled with some of the more contemporary elements of the story.

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