Lisa Norberg, Acting Director of the Library at The Cooper Union and librarian at La Scuola d’Italia, spoke with Kyle Lukoff, author and librarian at Corlears, about writing, reading, and life in the library.
LN: First, congratulations on receiving the Stonewall Award for When Aidan Became a Brother. How has receiving national recognition for your work changed the way you think about your writing?
KL: Thank you!
I think winning the Stonewall (and, prior to that, the generally good press it received) helped me trust my gut. See, it was really hard to find a publisher for Aidan. I had one editor suggest that I “team up with a talented writer,” and others give me vague, nebulous feedback saying that the story “didn’t work,” or that they “just didn’t love it.” My former agent wanted me to completely overhaul the story, but all of her suggestions involved deadnaming him, having strangers openly speculate about his gender, or include various transphobic microaggressions. Which I didn’t want to do. The last few months have proven that I was right to keep trying even when it probably made sense to give up. Which will hopefully translate to that level of confidence–or at least stubbornness–for future projects! Though who knows, that might not always be a good thing.
LN: You recently tweeted “I’m not a “real writer” I’m three very lonely creative children who like to make up stories about their imaginary friends stacked in a trench coat.” Do you think there is such a thing as a “real writer”? What’s your definition of a “real writer”?
KL: For one, thank you for reminding me that Twitter is public and that whatever random thoughts I feel like putting on the Internet could someday be called to my account.
I’m going to go ahead and say that there is no such thing as a “real writer,” and also that anyone who thinks of themselves as a real writer is one. And also that even if you don’t think of yourself as a real writer (raises hand tentatively) you might still be one anyway. My definition is somewhere between material reality and self-identification, and I can’t refine it any more than that.
LN: Was it a conscious decision to write a picture book that is as likely to be read by an adult to a child, as opposed to one that is aimed at a more mature individual reader?
KL: Of course! I don’t think one sets out to write a middle grade novel and then accidentally ends up with a picture book (though, I guess it could happen?) Frankly, part of my decision to write a picture book was because I had already sold two, and had a general sense of how the process worked. My first attempt at YA failed, and I wasn’t yet drawn to middle grade (though my MG debut, Live With That, will be out from Dial next spring!). Also, the day before I wrote the first draft two different librarians had asked about picture books about trans boys, and there was barely anything–I wanted to write something before a cis person did (unfortunately I was a few months too late for that, but *shrugs*)
LN: You recently published Call Me Max and Explosion at the Poem Factory is coming out soon. How do you juggle your writing career and your library career?
KL: This is my eighth year at Corlears, and by this point I’m happy with the curricula I’ve developed for each age level. If I didn’t have the writing thing to keep my engaged, I might decide to totally overhaul the curriculum, or drastically revamp the library program, or potentially even move to a different school for a new challenge. So if we’re thinking of the metaphor of juggling, you might say that I just added another beanbag to the existing pattern, rather than changing from beanbags to butcher knives or flaming torches or whatever. That being said, it would be impossible to balance this job with the amount of travel, speaking, and school visits I want to do, so I’ll be leaving Corlears in June to focus on those things (and writing) full-time.
LN: Has your career as a librarian informed your writing? If so, how?
KL: I don’t know if I would have been able to hit my stride as a writer without being a librarian! For one, reading hundreds of picture books, early readers, and middle-grade novels taught me so much about structure, content, form, voice, the market, and most importantly the responses of a wide audience of children. Also, knowing hundreds of children and their reading habits has helped make sure that my books are, well, ones that kids will like. Whenever I work on a book I imagine kids reading it–sometimes very specific children, sometimes what it would be like to read aloud to a group–which helps me figure out pacing, and when a page turn should happen, that sort of thing.
LN: Your undergraduate degree is from Barnard College, which is well known for producing award-winning writers—from Zora Neale Hurston and June Jordan to Jhumpa Lahiri and Edwidge Danticat. Did you know as an undergraduate that you would eventually pursue writing? Were there any faculty members or alum that inspired you?
KL: Kind of? I had planned on being a journalist or a lawyer, both of which are of course professions that require a lot of writing. But I never really imagined being a novelist or writing for children. I took one class called Fable and Fantasy with Anne Prescott where I wrote my first piece of fiction, an extremely depressing spin on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The main inspirations I got from undergrad had to do with feminism, and activism, and justice, and liberation, which I think (hope) is a throughline in at least some of my books.
LN: What kind of reader were you as a child?
KL: Inexhaustible. To this day I’m not sure if I read because I had a hard time making friends, or if I had a hard time making friends because I preferred to read. When I was a kid my mom would sometimes yell at me for leaving books all over the house, and now my décor is themed around “Take that, Mom, my whole house is books!”
LN: Who was your favorite picture book character then? Now?
KL: I can never pick favorites, but I always did and still do love Kevin Henkes’s Jessica.
LN: What book influenced you most as a child? As an adult?
KL: I don’t know from “most,” but when I was in 6th grade I somehow decided to read “Autobiography of a Face,” by Lucy Grealy (it’s a poet’s memoir of surviving childhood jaw cancer and then struggling with the disfigurement that came from it. It’s not for children). I fixated on it, keeping it in my backpack and reading it over and over and over. I recently re-read it out of curiosity and realized that my attachment to it probably came from my own alienated relationship with my body, though I couldn’t have told you that as a child. And even though there were a good two decades of my life that I didn’t really think about that book, re-reading it made me realize how much of it lodged into my subconscious for better or not.
LN: What advice would you give your library colleagues about developing inclusive collections?
KL: Get on Twitter and follow as diverse an array of writers and thinkers as you can, including (especially) the ones who tweet opinions that you might disagree with or that might make you feel extremely uncomfortable, or even attacked. DON’T ARGUE WITH THEM THOUGH, I cannot stress this enough, probably don’t even respond positively to anything. Just quietly absorb, work through, and learn from. I’m not saying you have to end up agreeing with everything that everyone says, especially since of course no community has monolithic opinions. But it’s always valuable to examine your own thinking in light of others’ experiences and ideas.