Review of the Day: Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff
Books for children are exceedingly difficult to write.
Wait . . . no. No. Scratch that. Let me try again.
Books for children are exceedingly difficult to write WELL. I mean, any putz (and I do mean any) can string enough words together to fill 32-pages, call it a picture book, and call it a day. And yes, children’s novels take a little more time, but there are plenty of bad ones out there. When those novels attempt to go in directions that introduce kids to topics that haven’t ever been tackled in literature for kids before, that’s important. However, just because an author writes about important stuff, that doesn’t automatically make their book good. I mean, I wish it did. But there are plenty of “important” poorly written books for kids out there. Honestly, I sort of feel it’s par for the course at this point. You break down the barriers with the mediocre “important” books, and that allows the great writers to come along and make their mark later. I say all this because once in a while you get lucky. You might actually find an author breaking down barriers who is also a great writer. Kyle Lukoff falls into that category. I mean, it was pretty evident when he was publishing picture books like the Max series and When Aidan Became a Brother. It was remarkably satisfying to see him win a Newbery Honor for Too Bright to See as well. Turns out, all of that was merely an Overture for the real show. With Different Kinds of Fruit Kyle (a trans author himself) is stretching his muscles. Because he’s not just tackling subjects that have never been tackled in children’s novels before. He’s tackling subjects that I’d wager a lot of adults may have never even known about. And the kids? They’re ready for it.
Annabelle didn’t ask for such a boring life, but what are ya gonna do? She lives with her mom and dad in the suburbs, attends a small school with the same kids she’s known since Kindergarten, and that’s the long and short of it. Then she meets Bailey. Bailey is different from every other kid Annabelle has ever known. First off, they use they/them pronouns because they’re non-binary. They know about LGBTQIA+ issues that Annabelle had never even heard of before. But when Annabelle’s parents start acting really really weird about Bailey’s appearance in school, she starts to fret that they might be homophobic. Turns out, her parents have a couple secrets of their own that they’ve been hiding all these years. Maybe it’s time to start standing up, not just for other people, but for yourself as well.
I want to say right from the start that I’m including spoilers in this review, so you should probably know that before you read much further. This is kind of a bummer for me, because going into this book blind, with just that cute gee-we’re-just-your-typical-middle-grade-novel cover to look at, turned out to be the ideal way to read this book. There is this jaw-dropping gut punch of a reveal in Chapter Eight that completely upset the applecart when it came to my expectations. Until that moment I thought this book was going to tread in pretty safe territory. Girl meets non-binary friend. Parents are bigots that must learn. Girl comes out to parents as gay and by the end everything is peaches and cream. But when a dad character says to you, “I’m your father. I’m transgender. And your mother didn’t give birth to you, I did”, that’s the moment you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. A nice way to build tension in your middle grade fiction is certainly to have this perception that your life and family have no secrets and then that peace of mind is shattered with a felling blow because “a stranger comes to town” (h/t to you, Joseph Campbell). I expected that. What I didn’t expect was a deep dive into inter-trans politics involving pregnancy, how semantics have changed within the community over the last 30 years, and more. I didn’t even have the language to begin to imagine a book for kids grappling with all of this. It’s a lot and Kyle packs it in like he’s only got one shot at this and he’s going to give it his all.
Kyle’s performing such a juggling act with his characters that this book should be a case study in how to inform and present a narrative at the same time. No doubt some sections are more successful than others. For example, one necessary evil at work here is that Kyle’s in a position where his kid characters have to be, on occasion, exceedingly understanding. Is that out of the range of possibility? Of course not! There are loads of kids out there that are wise beyond their years, almost out of necessity. But the sheer levels of loquaciousness that go on sometimes take you out of the narrative for half a second, since the kids have to serve as preternaturally informed. Then again, kids are smart, and they’ll take it upon themselves to learn everything if they truly feel it’s not simply in their own best interests but in the best interests of the world itself. At a midpoint in this book, Bailey explains to Annabelle that vegetables don’t exist. You see “vegetable” isn’t a job. Leaves are a job. Roots are a job. Flowers are a job. “Vegetable is something people made up to sell salad mix.” In my world, vegetables are also invoked when people talk about books that contain a lot of factual information. To give children that information straight is akin to “eating your vegetables” (which is apparently an unpalatable notion). Kyle will probably face that criticism, but what Kyle’s doing here is world building. Only it’s a part of your world that kids might not have known about before, so it requires a lot of exposition as a result. I’m not sure he always gets the balance of explanation to plot right all the time, but there are a lot more hits than misses as you go through it.
Before it won a Newbery Honor, I spent a lot of time talking up Kyle’s novel Too Bright to See, arguing that it should have a shot at the gold. When asked why, I had to fall back on the somewhat insufficient explanation that, “It has good writing,” which is always a difficult thing to define. What does a reviewer mean by “good writing”? Elegant turns of phrase? Wit? Humor? For me, the best writing in any book for kids is when the author produces universally understood notions and ideas that you might never have thought up yourself, but that hit home hard when you see them on the page. For example, at one point it’s the first day of school and all the kids in Annabelle’s class are sitting in a circle sharing what they did over the summer. She says, “The problem is that instead of listening to the kids who go before me, I always spend the whole time rehearsing and planning what I’m going to say.” Yup. Or regarding adults that can’t speak to kids naturally: “When he talked to us he had this fake laugh behind his voice, like he was the one human actor surrounded by puppets or cartoon characters.” Working on a project about solar panels is “somehow both extremely boring and very stressful.” And finally, “Being LGBTQ was like an epic fantasy story. They had read all the books in the series, and I was struggling through the table of contents.”
And then, of course, the book IS funny because Kyle knows how to write funny. It’s hard not to love lines like, “I had half a mind to hop a train to Arizona and kick some old trans guy butt.” I think it’s safe to say I never thought I’d see the phrase, “old trans guy butt” in a book for kids, and I am so glad it’s there. Or “I hadn’t been entirely sure what risotto was, but my shrewd powers of deduction told me that it was a gloppy rice situation.” Or, possibly my favorite, the moment when Annabelle starts watching what she tells Bailey because she, “had a suspicion it might turn into another conversation about -gender-, which would make me feel like a toddler pointing at every truck driving by and yelling ‘Truck!’ while Bailey was the patient babysitter being like ‘Yes, that is also a truck.’ “
Okay. So, you have a trans author writing about different kinds of issues on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, which means that by necessity some nuance is allowed, but characters are limited in how complicated they can become. Another thing I really appreciated about the book was how no one in it was perfect. Our heroine Annabelle starts off with an entire set of prejudices against the “other Annabelle” (who shares her name in her class). Bailey is laser-focused on their own good fight but also suffers from distinct tunnel vision (particularly as it applies to friends). Of course, it’s the bad guys that make a book interesting. Kyle’s willing to give some of them some ground, but he’s not excusing them for bad behavior. The principal is weak. The class bully a privileged little fart, who lives to regret involving his mom in his fight against change. You can sort of see where these characters are coming from, even if you don’t like them. But the bully’s mom? Now there’s a piece of work. She’s every teacher’s nightmare and if she’s two-dimensional, it’s not like clones of her don’t exist in our world. She’s certainly the most black and white of the book’s characters, but she’s also one of the most familiar. I can live with that.
Something I would have liked when I finished the book was a Glossary at the back of different terms. I know it’s not Kyle job to teach me what I don’t know, and that he spells a lot of things out in the book. That said, some of the new ideas being introduced to kids on these pages don’t have a handy place for definitions. You know what those kids are gonna do, right? They’re going to go straight to Google and tap in their questions and if they’re lucky they’re going to get accurate answers, and if they’re unlucky they’re going to get seriously confused. A list of websites and resources for further information also would not have been out of place. Ditto links from trusted sources that kids can go to if they find themselves identifying with any of the characters in this book. I’m sure the book’s website or Kyle’s website will cover all of that (and lord knows that websites date) but it still could do a bit of good in the book proper.
By the way, I was going to write this review a little sooner but my 10-year-old’s best friend saw my copy sitting on my chair and begged to read it immediately. You’d need a harder heart than I to say no to something like that, so I acquiesced. Reader, she read it in a day. A DAY! Not read it, no. Devoured it. This is a voracious reader, and she loved and adored what was going on in these pages. As such, I don’t want to hear any of you out there telling me that kids won’t like this book. Something about the combination of the content and the cover and writing greatly appeals. If you want a middle grade that doesn’t simply upset expectations but grows all new expectations out of the ether, this is the title for you. I want it to spread to every library in the country. I want it to go underground in places book banners thrive and to be passed from kid to kid so that one way or another they all see it, read it, and talk about it. A brave title for a time when we need brave books for kids more than ever.
On shelves April 12th
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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