Five questions for Kyle Lukoff (July 2019)

School librarian Kyle Lukoff's heartfelt picture book When Aidan Became a Brother (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita; Lee & Low, 4–7 years) begins, "When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl" — perfectly encapsulating the disconnect many very young transgender/gender-creative kids feel. As his family prepares to welcome a new baby, Aidan draws upon his own experiences to ensure his younger sibling will be understood and accepted.

1. Aidan identifies as a boy, but we see in the illustrations that he's pretty creative in how he expresses his gender, eventually even incorporating some of his old "girl" clothes in his color- and pattern-rich outfits. How did Aidan look in your mind when you were writing the text?

KL: I think it's interesting to use the word "but" in this question! We know that kids love being creative with their self-expression, and my students regularly come to school in some pretty impressive outfits. I don't think that being a boy is any obstacle to creating your own kind of look. But, yes, I wanted to create a trans boy character who didn't feel compelled to be hyper-masculine, or resort to male stereotypes in order to prove anything about his gender identity. I didn't have a clear image of him in my mind, because I'm not a very visually oriented person, but I knew that Aidan was the kind of kid who wanted to have fun with his outfits and play with gender expression from a place of self-confidence and joy.

2. Aidan's gender identity is central to the story, but it's not what the story is about (i.e., a new sibling's arrival). How did you land on this combination of ideas?

KL: The original draft was closely focused on his coming out process and transition, and it took a lot of revisions and guidance before I landed on the baby story. Once I got there I realized it was perfect; Aidan's trans identity isn't the point of the story, but the text also wouldn't work if he were cis. And those are my favorite kinds of trans books, ones in which the character's identity is intertwined with and inextricable from the narrative, but also not the main purpose of the story. That's how I experience my life; my trans history is deeply woven into my life but is also just one part of my day-to-day reality, and that was the kind of experience I wanted to show.

3. You use the word transgender just once and don't use the word gender at all in the story. Was that an intentional decision?

KL: I didn't intentionally avoid the word gender, it just never came up in the writing! I believe that it's crucial to use the word transgender, though. Accurate and specific language is important to help people identify who they are within a community context, and the words we use to define ourselves can link us to history and culture. I'm also starting to wonder if it's unfair to ask young children to have to interpret metaphors in books in order to come to a sense of self-awareness. I don't want trans kids to have to draw comparisons with mythological creatures or art supplies; I want them to know, without a doubt, that other kids are transgender just like them.

4. When you've shared the book with kids, what kinds of questions have you gotten from audiences? Have any questions surprised you?

KL: I've been an elementary school librarian for seven years, so while I'm always delighted by the questions kids come up with, I'm rarely surprised anymore. I once had a kid ask what my name used to be, and I love that question because it gives me an excuse to kindly and sympathetically explain that it's okay to be curious, but I don't like sharing that information: "I changed my name because I didn't like it! And it makes sense that I don't want to share something that I don't like, right?" Kids always understand that. They often ask if the new baby is a boy or a girl, and of course I say why I intentionally left it ambiguous. Sometimes they insist on assigning a gender, though, and I don't argue with them about it, I just tell them what I think. But the best question I ever got was rhetorical. I was reading Aidan at Gender Conference NYC, for trans youth and their families, so the whole audience was made up of trans elementary school students and their siblings. When I told the kids that I was trans like them, this nine-year-old stared at me and said in awe, "You're a trans boy, too?" I wanted to cry.

5. Do you have thoughts about how schools, where kids of all genders spend so much time, can help trans kids like Aidan (and trans kids not like Aidan) feel safe to be authentically themselves?

KL: I see teachers who are well-meaning, well-informed, thoughtful, and careful, tie themselves in anxious knots around making sure that everything they do is perfectly right, and everything they say is flawless. And I often encourage them to relax. I think there's this fear that if a kid is exploring their identity in some way, but isn't "loud and proud," it automatically means that the student feels like their school isn't a safe space. But I don't think that's true. Figuring out who you are, and how you want to navigate the world, takes a really, really long time, and there's no right way to do it. I encourage teachers to accept students as they are. But then hold those assumptions lightly, and if a student's identity starts to shift, maybe check in privately — but otherwise just go with the flow. Let them lead the way, and let them know that you're always behind them, but don't try to push them in any particular direction.

From the July 2019 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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