Kyle Lukoff is the author of the National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honor-winning Too Bright to See and the Stonewall Award winner When Aidan Became a Brother, among other titles for young readers. Andrea Tsurumi is an author, illustrator, and cartoonist whose picture books include Accident! and Crab Cake. The two have teamed up for There’s No Such Thing as Vegetables, a humorous picture book that exposes vegetables for what they truly are—a social construct. Lukoff and Tsurumi spoke about their collaboration, the comedy in contradiction, and posing thought-provoking questions for readers.

Kyle Lukoff: Picture book authors usually don’t get to choose their illustrators, but I really wanted to have a book with you, so I was thrilled when our editor put your name forward as a suggestion. I’m a huge fan of your picture book Crab Cake, and your style in general, and I knew you would be perfect for this book—you do non-human personalities so well. I’m wondering, selfishly, if you ever had the thought, “I’d like to work with that Kyle Lukoff character”?

Andrea Tsurumi: Oh, totally! I’ve wanted to work with you since we met at the 2019 Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference, where you memorably presented your book When Aidan Became a Brother [illustrated by Kaylani Juanita] and we nerded out about writing afterwards. I’m a big ol’ fan of narrative design, so I respected the hell out of how you built so much complex meaning into the telling of your stories while keeping them as direct as a conversation. For example, Aidan is a story about a trans boy preparing to be a big brother, and it shows how he tries to protect his sibling by giving them a more open welcome in the world. That’s the generosity of loving by sharing what you need, like an emotional breaking of bread. It’s also a great demonstration of the idea of “being family” as a verb instead of a description. I could also go on about how If You’re a Kid Like Gavin by you and Gavin Grimm [illustrated by J Yang] is completely seeded with the language of choice and choosing, but TLDR: your work is exciting.

Also, the night after my agent Stephen Barr showed me the Vegetables manuscript, I had a dream that someone else illustrated it and I woke up mad.

Crab Cake and There’s No Such Thing as Vegetables are both books about concepts that don’t want to be lesson books. Both of them lean heavily into characterization, and Crab Cake tries to abdicate authority by not having only one rescuer or, well, narrator. Can you talk about how Vegetables leaves—no pun intended—space for the reader? Do you want readers to come away having learned something specific?

Lukoff: I never write books hoping that a reader comes away with specific lessons. In Vegetables it’s obvious that I want to communicate this idea that vegetables are a social construct, and more broadly that social constructs exist in the first place, and aren’t inexorable laws of the universe. That doesn’t mean that every reader has to interpret it the same way that I do! I’d always rather ask my readers questions than tell them what they should think. I want them to be curious about the concepts I’m exploring, but every reader will be filtering my words through their own experiences and beliefs, and they might very well come away with conclusions I never even dreamed of.

When you’re talking about this book, do you refer to the vegetables as, well, vegetables? Even though the whole point of the book is that “vegetable” is a made-up category?

Tsurumi: There’s no one single correct term, and if I use “vegetables” to describe them, I’m very aware that it’s not accurately describing them, and I love that contradiction! It shows how arbitrary and subjective and created all these categories are. Look, once the camera shifts and you realize these big solid walls are actually just lines drawn by human hands, you can’t unsee that. It liberates you to turn these rules into tools or toys we use to explore who we understand ourselves to be and how we relate to each other.

I'd always rather ask my readers questions than tell them what they should think. —Kyle Lukoff

Lukoff: Same! Now, every time I ask my boyfriend what vegetables he wants for dinner, he says, “I thought there was no such thing,” and it’s like getting a preview of what dinners might look like in some homes after a kid reads this book.

Tsurumi: You told me that “There’s No Such Thing as Vegetables” was originally a title for your novel, Different Kinds of Fruit. How did that idea evolve? Has your favorite thing about Vegetables changed from first writing it to the final draft?

Lukoff: There’s a line in Different Kinds of Fruit where a character says, “There’s no such thing as vegetables.” I thought that was a great title, but the team behind my second middle grade novel worried that that sounded too much like a picture book. The earliest draft of the picture book had a dry, arch, “Hey kids, did you know” tone, and my wise agent suggested that I create a young protagonist, to give kids someone to connect to. I personally connected to dry, arch narrators as a child, but conceded that a wider audience wouldn’t be so bad. The biggest shift is that the vegetables themselves developed personalities—my favorites are Beatrice the femme fatale kale, the aggrieved beet, and a histrionic cherry tomato.

It’s also worth noting that there’s another fruit/vegetable conversation in my first novel, Too Bright to See. I don’t know why this is one of my special interests, but maybe once this book is out, I’ll finally be free to fixate on something else.

Speaking of personality, you really were the one who gave each vegetable their particular je ne sais quoi. How did you unlock their characters?

Tsurumi: A lot of that came from getting vibes from either their line readings and/or their shapes. I did a tiny photo shoot of actual vegetables from all angles, to see what sparked, then did some Muppety experiments with eye shapes and placements. Some of them went through iterations, like Eggplant/Damon once had an eyepatch, but some were instantly clear: Aggro Tomato, Emo Lettuce, Prince Ruffles Kale. Once I gave Pumpkin Dad a mustache, there was no going back.

Lukoff: And did you eat any of the vegetables that you used as inspiration?

Tsurumi: Who talked?

There’s No Such Thing as Vegetables by Kyle Lukoff, illus. by Andrea Tsurumi. Holt, $18.99 Feb. 27 ISBN 978-1-2508-6784-1