Rob shares his two new titles and his thoughts on growing LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the children's nonfiction genre.
Meeg Pincus here, founder of Solutionary Stories. I am so excited to share this interview with Rob Sanders, whose collection of books, alongside those of Gayle E. Pittman, are leading the way in LGBTQ+ nonfiction picture books (a category close to my heart!).
I wanted to talk with Rob about both his own work and his thoughts about LGBTQ+ representation in our kidlit nonfiction genre overall. I loved what he had to say (more LGBTQ+ nonfiction PBs and creators coming down the pipe!)—and I bet you will, too. Read my chat with Rob below.
Rob, your nonfiction picture books make for an amazing collection of LGBTQ+ solutionary stories! (Stonewall, Mayor Pete, Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, The Fighting Infantryman and forthcoming Two Grooms on a Cake.) What connects these books for you, along with the obvious LGBTQ+ themes?
Thanks, Meeg. I count it as an honor to be able to add to the canon of LGBTQ+ nonfiction solutionary stories! I’ve been told that authors often explore the same theme over and over in the books they write. That may be true. I think most of the books I write (both fiction and nonfiction) are about belonging, being yourself, and being accepted. That universal topic is something most, if not all, of us can relate to.
Another thing the ties these books together is my desire to tell part of the history of my community and to write the books I never saw as a child. These are under-told or untold stories. Stories that are not only a part of my community but of history as a whole. I’m asked a lot why I write about such controversial subjects. I always respond in the same way: “I don’t write about controversial subjects. I write about history. What would be controversial is to not teach history to our children.”
Finally, I’m reminded of the closing lines of Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag my first LGBTQ+ nonfiction picture book. Those lines say:
Harvey’s flag became a flag for us all.
My books are all about those four words—equality, pride, hope, love.
I just love your response to the "controversial" question, Rob, and so agree! And of course I love your mission. On that note, what are your thoughts on the overall state of LGBTQ+ stories in nonfiction picture books right now? What would you like to see going forward?
There are more and more queer stories being told in nonfiction picture books these days. Several survey books have come out recently—which is a great way for kids to meet multiple influencers and role models from the LGBTQ+ community within the covers of a single book. Publishing companies of every size have shown an interest in creating books about LGBTQ+ history and more and more indy bookstores, librarians, and teachers are adding these books to their shelves. There are also some wonderful partnerships going on in publishing like the one between Little Bee Books and GLAAD. Of course, books are a business, and a story has to be one that can attract readers in order to be viable, but it can be done.
I am happy to see younger writers and illustrators getting into the queer space of kidlit. Many organizations like The Writing Barn and Highlights Foundation are offering safe spaces for these creators to learn, grow, and develop their craft. We need all of that and more. I’m collaborating with Carole Boston Weatherford on a book that will come out in 2022. That books is about a gay, African-American Civil Rights leader. We’re bringing our two voices together to tell his story. I’d love to see more collaborations like that happening.
Going forward I would like to see a wider cross section of LGBTQ+ authors, illustrators, agents, and publishing professionals taking on these topics. We need champions for our stories and people who understand their importance and who can be the voices for our history. Of course, we need our LGBTQ+ allies in publishing, too, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without their help.
Yes to all of this! Can you give us a sneak peek of your forthcoming book, Two Grooms on a Cake? What's something especially inspiring about it?
I’m happy to say I have two nonfiction picture books coming out this year. Two Grooms on a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding (illustrated by Robbie Cathro and published by Little Bee Books) comes out in May and Stitch By Stitch: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt (illustrated by Jamey Christoph and published by Magination Press) comes out in the fall.
Two Grooms on a Cake is the remarkable story of Michael McConnell and Jack Baker who were legally married in 1971. (You have to read the book to learn how they managed to do that.) Michael and Jack are still married, and this book comes out this year just in time for their 50th anniversary. They have been involved in the process of this book at every stage and have been wonderful and inspiring to work with. They are gay pioneers in many ways. At one time they had two cases in front of the Supreme Court. They were the first couple to have a same-sex marriage case before the Supreme Court and that original case was sited in the SCOTUS Marriage Equality decision in 2015. The book is written in parallel stories—one telling how a wedding cake is made and the other telling how the relationship between Jack and Michael grew.
Stitch by Stitch is close to my heart because I was a young gay man when AIDS first started ravaging our community. I’ve dedicated the book to the first friend I made in high school who was also my first friend to die from complications from AIDS. I vividly remember the AIDS Memorial Quilt and friends making panels to honor those they loved and cherished and I remember watching as those quilt panels were displayed on the National Mall. Sometime ago I wrote a poem about Cleve and the quilt and that poem winds its way through the book which begins and ends with the quilt Cleve great-grandmother made for him when he was born. I’m thrilled that Jamey Christoph who illustrated Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. is illustrating this book, too. And Cleve Jones has read the manuscript and gave such helpful input. It's always a moving experience to be able to talk with one of your heroes.
I truly cannot wait to get my hands on both of these books, Rob! (I remember well visiting the AIDS quilt on the National Mall in D.C. in the early 90s (as part of a march, led by Tipper Gore!). Wow.) Such important stories. And so excited to see you and Jamey Christoph paired up again.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share with Solutionary Stories—your books about all of our history always have a home here!
To learn more about Rob Sanders, check out his website, and of course his books!