Rob Sanders, a teacher and author based in Florida, has written children’s book set in the wild west and outer space. His next books, however, are focused on something a little different: LGBTQ history.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag and Stonewall: The Uprising for Gay Rights are Sanders’ upcoming illustrated books for young readers.
Sanders grew up in Springfield, Missouri, fostering a love of books from a young age through libraries and a third grade field trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home.
Now, he teaches at Mintz Elementary School in Brandon, Florida. In his own words, ‘working daily with children’ is what inspired him to start writing his own children’s books.
Gay Star News had the opportunity to speak with Sanders about Pride and Stonewall, teachers as allies to the community, and more.
GSN: When did the ideas for Pride and Stonewall first come about and how did you develop them?
The idea for Pride came first. On 26 June, 2015, I sat at home waiting for the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. When the wonderful news came, the entire country — even the White House — was washed in the colors of the Rainbow Flag. I decided at that moment that kids needed to know about that Rainbow Flag and the pride it represents. It was Gilbert Baker who pointed out that our 2018 release date was the 40th anniversary of his creation of the first Pride Flag.
I soon realized that the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising was coming in 2019 and set out to write that story, too.
Though you are known for your children’s books, you could have easily made these books primarily for an adult audience. What made you want to tell these stories for children (and people of all ages)?
There are plenty of books for adults about Harvey Milk, the Pride Flag, and Stonewall. There was no need for me to write another one. The need I saw was for kids to begin to develop knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for these important people and events. If I can help kids look through a historical lens at these events, then eventually I hope they’ll be able to look at other people through a personal lens with understanding, appreciation, and acceptance. We’ve seen in recent days what the lack of that ability breeds. Can we really afford to not share our community’s stories with kids? I don’t think so.
What did you take into consideration writing these books that some might regard as ‘inappropriate’ for children, if anything?
My goal was to tell the historical truth in a way that was age-appropriate for kids. Pride is told in a simple, straightforward, almost lyrical style. The illustrations are an essential component that help tell the story.
Stonewall is told through the perspective of the two horse stables that eventually became the Stonewall Inn. As the buildings track their history they finally find themselves becoming part of history. I hope that this approach sets the events of Stonewall in a context kids can begin to understand.
That’s one of the beautiful things about books for kids—they often have layers and layers of meaning.
Did you receive any resistance when you were first developing the ideas?
One person who read Pride in an early stage thought it was gay propaganda.
But history is history. Our story is our story. Truth is truth. I notice surprised looks from some folks when they hear about the books. Interestingly, I’ve found many adults who have no idea who Harvey Milk or Gilbert Baker were, and others who think Stonewall refers to Stonewall Jackson.
My agent, editor, and publisher have been wildly enthusiastic about both books from the beginning, and for every person who doesn’t know the stories of our community, I’ve met five others who are positive supporters and can’t wait for the books to be released.
What research did you do for the books? Did you speak to any activists or consultants, specifically for Stonewall, as a movement led by trans women of color and drag queens?
Pride was read by Gilbert Baker on two occasions and he gave his input, which is reflected in the final story. It was also read by Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew and the Founder and President of the Harvey Milk Foundation.
Because of the approach I used with Stonewall, I reached out to the Greenwich Village Historical Society, read reports from the various historical designations of Greenwich Village, and read every book about the Stonewall Uprising I could put my hands on. I’ve been to the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park, and I’ve walked the streets and alleys that those brave protesters — many young and homeless, people of color, lesbians, trans and drag queens, and all marginalized — took a stand. Ken Lustbader of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project read this manuscript for historical accuracy as well.
Gilbert Baker illustration in Pride
Can you share a little about the illustration process with Steven Salerno for Pride and Jamey Christoph for Stonewall?
One thing that surprises people the most about the process of creating a picture book is that the author and illustrator do not communicate or collaborate. The editor and art director manage the process. I tell my half of the story, then the illustrator tells his/her part of the story. I saw sketches at various stages for Pride and gave my feedback, but the final decisions rested with the editor and art director. Magic happens when the author doesn’t dictate to the illustrator, and vice versa.
The end result is that Steven Saleno’s illustrations for Pride are more than I ever could have envisioned. I’ve seen some rough sketches for Stonewall and love Jamey Christoph’s work. I look forward to seeing the next stage of illustrations soon.
With the current state of politics and LGBTQ rights, these books are going to be more timely than ever. What does that mean to you?
Frankly, having any book come into the world at any time is exhilarating and frightening. The events of the last few months have heightened both emotions in regards to these two books. But I am humbled and honored that I get to tell this part of our history to kids.
What impact do you hope these books have? What kind of audience do you hope the books find?
I want to see Pride and Stonewall in public and school libraries, and to see kids skimming through them and checking them out. I want to see teachers reading the books to their classes and know that parents are sitting with their kids and reading these stories together. Hopefully, the books will make their way into middle schools and high schools where they can start conversations and make coming out easier for LGBTQ kids. Maybe adults will learn something, too, and grow in their understanding of themselves and our community.
Rainbow White House in Pride
Are LGBTQ history and rights part of your curriculum as a teacher?
Education is standards-based in our state (as is probably true everywhere). But within that structure I’ve found ways to teach about social issues of all kinds. Books are the foundation to teach about social issues, and matching kids to appropriate books is key.
Listening to kids, making LGBTQ parents feel welcome and supported, pointing out to kids language that is offensive, building a positive community within a classroom, and incorporating LGBTQ role models within the context of what we’re learning (whether it’s poet Richard Blanco or astronaut Sally Ride) are all ways I’ve found to be inclusive in my instruction.
How do you think the education system can become a better ally to the LGBTQ community?
I was in a meeting recently where teachers were being trained to recognize mental health issues. The presenter (and the official Powerpoint presentation) referred to our community as the LGB community. So, the first thing the education system can do is to know who we are. I think it’s essential to say LGBTQ — because many kids and teenagers are at a stage where they are questioning their sexuality and/or gender identity.
Giving room for questioning is essential. Books are essential. Non-judgmental, open-minded teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, and so on are essential. Truthfully, I probably can’t impact the educational system. But I can impact a student, or a parent, or a fellow teacher. Changes are made one-to-one and one by one.
Do you have a message you’d like to send to the LGBTQ community and our readers?
Don’t be invisible. Tell your story. Let others know who you are. If you’re an author, write. If you’re an artist, paint. If you’re an organizer, organize. If you’re an educator, teach. If we each tell our story within the context of our daily lives, then we’ll be visible.
Pride will be published in April 2018 and Stonewall is set for 2019. Random House is publishing both. You can find more information at Rob Sanders’ website.
Got a news tip? Want to share your story? Email us .