Review by RJ McDaniel
Dial/Penguin Random House, April 2021
188 pages, Hardcover, $22.99 CAD, 9780593111154
Ages 10+, Grades 5+
Contemporary Realism, Mystery
I try to imagine myself growing up like that, filling out a bra, caring about what my hair looks like. I can’t really imagine it. Trying to picture myself as a teenage girl is like staring at the sun, too bright to see, and it hurts. Thinking about being an adult, a woman, makes me feel like I’m looking up at the stars but there’s nothing holding me to the earth, and I might fly off into the void at any moment.
Eleven-year-old Bug’s life is, all things considered, pretty good. There are plenty of books to read. There’s Moira, the close neighbour a twenty-minute bike ride away, who remains Bug’s best friend even if her growing interest in makeup, gossip, and middle-school politics is beginning to create a strange distance between the two of them. Though Bug’s old house deep in the Vermont woods is most likely full of ghosts, with mom and Uncle Roderick always around, it never really feels lonely.
But then, the summer before middle school begins, Uncle Roderick dies. And the ghosts aren’t just cold spots and strange noises anymore: There’s a new ghost — one who seems to have an urgent message for Bug.
Too Bright to See is the debut novel from librarian and children’s author Kyle Lukoff. Lukoff is trans, and Too Bright to See is — spoiler alert — the story of how Bug comes to understand that he’s a trans boy. What makes Too Bright to See so special is the depth with which Lukoff depicts Bug’s journey, using the haunting to give both Bug and the reader a glimpse into the hidden currents that run under the shiny surfaces of our minds.
Bug, who narrates the events of the novel in first-person, is a charming character to go on this journey with. Smart, funny, and perceptive, Bug doesn’t fall into the classic “tomboy” archetype often found in middle-grade books — he couldn’t care less about sports, he isn’t only friends with boys, and he has no great resentment against “girliness” as a concept. Uncle Roderick, after all, doubled as the fabulous drag queen Anita Life. But Bug is growing increasingly aware that there is something unsettling going on, even beyond grieving the loss of his uncle. When Moira gives him a makeover one afternoon, the face Bug sees in the mirror is such a stranger that it initially makes him scream in shock: “I never knew I could look like that, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.” Like seeing a ghost, he thinks, and wonders if his reaction is abnormal. The girls in his books don’t feel like he does; they love their makeovers.
Like many kids who love reading, Bug often imagines himself as someone in a story, narrating his own actions in the third person. And like many trans people, kids and adults alike, he uses this continuous imagining — creating a self outside himself and viewing his life from a distance — to cope with and to avoid confronting his growing discomfort. “‘The girl ran barefoot over the lawn, caressing her face,’” he imagines himself on a lonely afternoon; in a group of girls, he imagines what they would say if they were characters in a novel. It’s better than thinking about the future: “Trying to picture myself as a teenage girl is like staring at the sun, too bright to see, and it hurts.” At times, Bug thinks it might not be so bad to keep doing this forever, living at arm’s length from himself, watching her go through the motions.
The ghost won’t let him. The night after that makeover, the ghost shatters a bottle of nail polish. The ghost sends haunting dreams, speaks in the babbling of the creek, and leads Bug, as he tries to figure out the ghost’s identity and its message, down the path of self-discovery. It’s a path that is often uncertain, sometimes painful. For Bug, though, it leads to joy, acceptance, and a future newly filled with possibility.
Nuanced, engaging, and profound, Too Bright to See is a book that will resonate with readers young and old, cis and trans alike. Like a benevolent ghost with an important message, the story will linger in the back of your mind long after the covers of the book have been closed.
RJ is an MFA student at UBC and an editor at Young Adulting. They have worked as a writer and editor since 2017, and they are currently at work on their debut novel. A recovering sports journalist, they still watch more baseball than any well-adjusted person should. Other passions include bird-spotting, cat-bothering, knitting, and Succession.