In this post, HVLA board member Hannah Mermelstein interviews HVLA member (and former board member) and author Kyle Lukoff. Have more questions for him? Leave them in the comments and he'll respond!
Hannah Mermelstein: Your book A Storytelling of Ravens is coming out in May. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the book and what specifically inspired you to write it?
Kyle Lukoff: I can't remember when I first realized how cool collective nouns were, but I think the seed for this book was planted in the fall of 2006. I was sitting in Washington Square Park with my friend Tamar looking at birds, and she idly wondered what the collective noun for sparrows was. I pulled a piece of paper out of my backpack that had a list of animal collective nouns, because that's the kind of thing I would print out and keep in my backpack, and she was delighted. Not long after I started talking to my roommate, a very talented artist, about collaborating on a picture book project together. I wrote the text (most of which made it into the final book), he did some preliminary sketches, and I vaguely researched the publication process. That iteration never went anywhere, and it took, like, seven years for me to get back to it. I'm glad I did!
HM: Did you know the artist who did end up illustrating your book? How did she come to work on the project?
KL: I met Natalie once, at ALA, but she came to work on the text through our editor at Groundwood, Sheila Barry (who passed away on November 14th, z"l). Her style isn't anything like I had imagined for the story, but it's beautiful and hilarious and I love it so much.
HM: Did you have any other ideas for the title? Do you have a favorite collective noun?
KL: I always thought it should be STORYTELLING. That page isn't my favorite (I think the parliament of owls is my favorite, or maybe the trip of sheep, or...) but it just works so well for a book title. I don't have a favorite collective noun, but I do like coming up with collective nouns for other things. I think a group of librarians should be called an "access."
HM: That's brilliant. I think it needs to be the title of this post. So...publishing publishing publishing. I'm sure many a school librarian has had the dream of publishing a children's book. Tell us about the process.
KL: IT'S TERRIBLE AND BAD AND I DON'T RECOMMEND IT. No but seriously, if you love waiting weeks and months for a vague and noncommittal email, which is the best news you get after lots and lots of rejections, publishing might be right for you. I first started trying to get published after I had written a trans young adult novel, which will probably never go anywhere. I learned how to write a query letter, where to find agents, and how to emotionally deal with an onslaught of form letters politely "passing" on my work. One agent, Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch, was the only one who saw promise, and worked with me to improve the first few chapters. She ultimately decided to pass on it, but she was the only agent to give me any really positive feedback, which helped keep me from feeling like a total and utter failure. I decided to give up on my YA novel and start pitching STORYTELLING, since I was more familiar with the process and had developed a hard callus around my heart when it came letting strangers judge my intensely personal creative output. After a few more rejections (yaaay) Betsy Bird suggested that I get in touch with an agent she had learned about, Kirsten Hall. I showed Kirsten the text, she loved it, and a few months later she had an offer from Groundwood. Kirsten and I aren't working together anymore, but I'm really grateful to her for getting me that first deal.
HM: You have two other books coming out in 2019. Wowzers! Can you briefly describe them each?
KL: Sure! EXPLOSION AT THE POEM FACTORY is another Groundwood title. I'm not exactly sure when that will be out, it might be pushed back to 2020, but I sent that one to Sheila in the summer of 2016, and she immediately fell in love with it. It's based on the winning poem from the Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest, part of a college organization I was involved in. As you might guess from the title, it's about a poem factory that explodes. AIDAN AND THE BABY will be from Lee & Low, and is about a child who first comes out as trans, and then helps his parents welcome a new baby without gendered expectations.
HM: Which was the easiest to get published? Which was the hardest?
KL: STORYTELLING was by far the easiest, since I just sent my agent a text that I had written years and years ago, and she sold it for me after a few months. AIDAN is the hardest of the books that's been published (since multiple texts never made it that far). I'm pretty sure that challenge is related to a transphobic, cis-normative culture. Publishers have very set ideas of what trans stories should look like, and seem invested in portraying trans people as pitiable youth who need their help, and also show resistance to adult authors and creators invested in representing our lives and cultures. But what do I know.
HM: Which of your books went through the most changes from conception to completion?
KL: Definitely AIDAN. For one, he used to be named Henry. One editor who ended up passing on it did help me tighten and focus the story, and the current draft is almost unrecognizable from the initial draft (which I first wrote when I was home sick from school last September). There are signs in the original Henry story about where it could be, but the current version is a whole different narrative.
HM: Did you preview any of the books with your students? What have been your favorite reactions?
KL: Not yet! I've shown kids a few drafts that never turned into anything, but I feel weirdly protective of these ones. They're all very excited, though. One kid doesn't understand why I haven't won the Caldecott yet (despite my endless explanations that the ILLUSTRATOR wins, not the author. Her response to that was, "Well, nobody's perfect").
HM: Out of all three books, what is your favorite line or page?