Here’s a beautiful ghostly tale of self-discovery.
Too Bright to See
by Kyle Lukoff
Dial Books, 2021.
Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available from Libby.
11-year-old Bug has grown up in an old house in Vermont that’s always been haunted. Cold spots, doors opening and closing on their own, strange faces in the mirrors – that sort of thing. Bug has never been bothered by it, taken all of these as natural when one lives in a house as old as theirs. Bug’s mother has never believed in the ghosts, but Uncle Roderick, who also lives with them, taught Bug all about them and how to recognize them.
Except now, Uncle Roderick has died. And besides the painful, non-mystical ghosts of his winter boots and canned okra, strange new things start happening. Bug starts having vivid and disturbing dreams, and things are thrown around the house or left on the floor in the night for Bug to find.
At the same time, Bug is trying to find out how to get along with Mo, the daughter of her mother’s business partner – former forced companion, now best friend, but who also seems most interested in makeup, fashion, and boys, studying how to fit in and make friends in middle school. Bug tries going along with the makeovers at sleepovers and commenting on the boys in the middle school yearbook, but it all feels forced and wrong.
When Bug is alone, the days are filled with reading and exploring the woods and creek around their house. But even there, something is wrong. Bug’s mind constantly narrates in the third person – “The girl climbed a tree with a book in her teeth” – and the new ghost is there even at the creek. Slowly, Bug becomes convinced that the new ghost is Uncle Roderick, and that he’s trying to pass on a message. But thrown and broken things only make it clear that his feelings are intense, not what the message is.
Uncle Roderick is a real presence, too, as Bug remembers playing in the woods as well as past boyfriends and Uncle Roderick giving lessons in drag queen makeup – the life he gave up to live in the woods with his sister and Bug. The contrast between living Uncle Roderick and ghostly probably-Uncle Roderick is huge. It isn’t a life-threatening ghost situation, but it’s still really creepy. My language writing the review feels stilted because I’m deliberately avoiding using pronouns for Bug, who when the story starts has never questioned being a girl, but who nevertheless refuses to use their birth name and feels horribly uncomfortable and wrong wearing dresses or makeup. The story is a lovely journey of Bug harmonizing the inside and outside selves. The ghostly aspects feel like they could pair well with books like The Swallow, but I haven’t seen any gender exploration like this come to middle grade speculative fiction in the past. It was also recently announced as a finalist for the National Book Award.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.
This review was featured on Twinkl’s Wonderful Books of 2021 post. Thanks to Leah for contacting me!