Author Rob Sanders revolutionizes picture books with ‘Stonewall’

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Self-described “writer who teaches and teacher who writes” Rob Sanders appreciates anniversaries. In celebration of the LGBTQ pride flag’s 40th in 2018, he released “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag,” the first picture book detailing the LGBTQ symbol’s origin. Now, just ahead of the Stonewall Uprising’s 50th, he’s made history again with “Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution.”

The openly LGBTQ author’s follow up is the first picture book to detail the Stonewall Inn and its role in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Its story of strength, unity and equality was released April 23 from Random House Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books; the world’s largest English-language children’s trade book publisher.

“In the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn was raided by police in New York City,” its synopsis reads. “Though the inn had been raided before, that night would be different. It would be the night when empowered members of the LGBTQ+ community—in and around the Stonewall Inn—began to protest and demand their equal rights as citizens of the United States.”

Featuring colorful illustrations by openly LGBTQ artist Jamey Christoph, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, “Stonewall” proudly introduces young readers to one of America’s largest civil rights movements. Narrated by the Stonewall Inn itself, the book begins in the 1840s when the building boarded horses in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

“One of the difficult things, whenever you’re writing a children’s book, is figuring out where to start,” Sanders says. “Figuring out how to create a tone that kids can relate to and that will carry them through a story.” He says the first few drafts of “Stonewall” were focused strictly on the protest and were too militant.

“I was getting all of the history down,” he says. “I was getting the emotions of the story but it wasn’t really something that I knew would interest kids or sustain their interest. But in one of my drafts, I just happened to write at the very top, ‘For more than 100 years, they witnessed history. Until the night they became a part of history.’”

His editor, the same who’d edited “Pride,” suggested the author utilize the voice found within those two lines. “I thought of the old adage ‘If these walls could talk,’” Sanders recalls. “I went back and decided to trace the building’s history with the culminating event of when they became a part of history on that night in June 1969.”

Rob Sanders’ “Stonewall” is the first picture book detailing the Stonewall Inn’s role in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Photo courtesy Random House.

Sanders had already studied the fateful evening at length, consulting even a decades-old Farmer’s Almanac to confirm its nearly full moon, but the decision led him to extensively research the Inn’s entire history. Thankfully, he found that Greenwich Village had begun one of its earliest classifications as a historical district the year of the uprising.

“There are reams of information about all of the buildings in the streets, from the size of windows to the kind of bricks used in different buildings,” he says. “That was all part of documenting the historical nature of the neighborhood to preserve it.”

It was valuable to his research, though challenges remained. There were discrepancies about the streets in the 1800s, information he needed to fully realize the building’s beginnings. “I found a diary entry of a 12-year-old girl from the late 1800s who had lived in Greenwich Village,” he says. “She’d written about the rough rumble of carriages on the cobblestone streets outside of her bedroom window.”

Details like these allowed Sanders to more accurately relay Stonewall’s origins, showcasing it from the pair of stable houses built in 1843 and 1846 to what is now 51-53 Christopher St. in Greenwich Village. The book highlights the structures joining together as Bonnie’s Stone Wall restaurant in 1930 to opening as the modern LGBTQ hotspot recognizable today.

While authors and illustrators don’t collaborate during the publishing process, Sanders says Christoph’s research mirrored his own. “It was all very exciting,” the author says of seeing the book’s first completed pages. “I tend to have a picture in my mind of what a book might look like, but it always fall short of what an illustrator actually does. It’s been a great thing to see come to life, and to see that he did as much research as I did. To see that reflected on the page is very thrilling.”

To ensure the book’s more modern accuracy, the team behind “Stonewall” also relied on LGBTQ activist Martin Boyce, who participated in the uprising. He and a group of diverse consultants provided feedback in an effort to accurately represent the riots and all of the individuals present in 1969.

“We became aware that we really needed more input,” Sanders says. “We needed someone who could represent a lesbian perspective, a transgender perspective, an African American perspective, since so many groups of people were represented at the uprising. Eight different people read and gave input, and every single one of them affected the text and even the illustrations in one way or another.”

“Stonewall” culminates on the evening of June 28, 1969. Photo courtesy Random House.

As his tale is told in broad strokes and through the eyes of the building, he adds, it’s his hope that more books from other perspectives follow. “One historian told me that your view of history depends on where you’re standing at the moment,” he says. “There’s no reason to think that one book would ever represent everything there is to know about an event. Hopefully we’ll have others to add to our canon of LGBTQ children’s books with additional perspectives of the uprising, and with authentic voices telling them.”

In the meantime, Sanders will lend his voice to a number of upcoming projects, including the LGBTQ tales of a transgender Civil War soldier and the first same-sex couple to marry via legal loophole in 1971.

“There’s a college professor who said that children need books that are mirrors and windows,” Sanders says, “mirrors to see themselves and windows that allow them to see into a world beyond themselves. Some kids are already aware of their sexuality or gender, or they know family members who might be gay or have parents who are in the community. To see people like themselves and their family represented on the page is important.”

“Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution.”is currently available wherever books are sold. The Paperback Exchange Bookstore will host Rob Sanders for a special reading May 25 in Port Richey, Fla. For more information on the event, click here. For more information about Sanders, visit his website.

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