Until recently, educator Rob Sanders wrote lighthearted, fanciful picture books, such as the 2017 romp Rodzilla, illustrated by Dan Santat. But beginning in 2018—with Pride, illustrated by Steven Salerno, and Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr—he’s turned his attention to activism and LGBTQ history. PW spoke with Sanders about his newest picture book, Stonewall (illustrated by Jamey Christoph; Random House, ages 5–8), the release of which is timed to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the launch of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
What sparked your interest in writing about civil rights and LGBTQ history?
I had toyed with the idea of writing nonfiction picture books for a while, and then a special event propelled me into doing so. Unlike most of my books, I know the exact moment of inspiration for Pride. It was the night of the SCOTUS marriage equality decision: June 26, 2015. As I watched the news and darkness fell across the country, landmark after landmark, including the White House, was washed in the colors of the rainbow flag. I realized that kids needed to know about the history of the pride flag, and I wrote the first draft that night. It was a heart book; a book of celebration. Little did I know that with the changing political tides it would become a book of necessity.
Why do you think it’s important for children to learn this history?
I’m often asked why I write controversial books. I don’t consider what I write controversial. I consider it, as you said, history. To me, not teaching history would be controversial. The shelf of picture books that discuss LGBTQ+ history is small, but it’s growing. And it should grow. LGBTQ+ history is part of American history. My fourth-grade students are enthralled—and often incensed—when we read about the civil rights movement, the fight for women’s rights, the plight of farm workers, and so on. They understand unfairness, injustice, and inequality. It’s only natural and right that they would also read about the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.
The riots and police raids leading up to the Stonewall protest were violent, and there was a lot of fear surrounding these events. What was your approach to tackling such intense material for children?
Finding the entry point into a story is always crucial, as is finding the right tone. My first drafts of Stonewall were long, and the writing was heavy. I was capturing the facts, but my writing at that stage certainly wouldn’t captivate children. For some reason I’d added a few lines below the title of one of those not-so-great drafts. I wrote, “Two stable houses, side-by-side. For more than a century they witnessed history pass by. Then came a night when the buildings became part of history.” My editor didn’t think the draft was working, but he liked those three sentences. After reading his notes, I thought, “If only these walls could talk.” I realized I knew how to write the story. I would let the buildings tell about the night of the uprising. The final version of the book is in first person and begins, “Two stable houses side-by-side. For more than a hundred years, we witnessed history. Then came a night when we became part of history.” Entry point and tone, check!