Author Rob Sanders has two 2020 nonfiction picture books—in this blog post, he shares the origins of both of them!
Here's author Rob Sanders sharing the background story of his #DiverseKidlitNF books, THE FIGHTING INFANTRYMAN and MAYOR PETE!
By Rob Sanders
I have two picture book biographies releasing this summer. It’s a first for me and it’s thrilling. THE FIGHTING INFANTRYMAN: THE STORY OF ALBERT D. J. CASHIER, TRANSGENDER CIVIL WAR SOLIDER (Little Bee Books, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali) releases June 2. MAYOR PETE: THE STORY OF PETE BUTTIGIEG (Henry Holt and Company, illustrated by Levi Hastings) releases on July 21. But these two books have more in common than their close release dates. The two stories also span nearly 160 years of American LGBTQ+ history.
The bulk of both stories occurs in America’s Midwest—Albert’s in Illinois and Pete’s in Indiana. Albert D. J. Cashier mustered into the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry on September 4, 1862. Pete Buttigieg joined the reserves in 2009. Albert fought in the Union Army for nearly three years. Pete served in the reserves for six years and was on active duty in Afghanistan.
Both men embraced who they were. Albert lived his life as the man he knew he was at a time when doing so was nearly unheard-of. Pete came out as a gay man while in the midst of a reelection campaign for mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Newspaper accounts report that some who knew Albert said he voted in every election. I’m sure it would have been impossible for him to imagine that the front pages of newspapers in 2020 would cover the campaign of an openly gay man running for the highest office in the land.
I came to each story—or each story came to me—in a different way. I found a small photo of Albert in his military uniform while doing research for Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag. Intrigued, I began initial research about Albert. Several secondary sources eventually led me to a book published in 1865 that chronicled the campaigns of the Ninth-fifth Illinois Infantry and a 192-page military pension file about Albert. I followed the research and wrote the story.
Pete’s story came to me in a different way. I had followed the announcement of his presidential exploratory committee, watched his appearances on late night talk shows and news channels, and read his autobiography. No sooner had I finished reading that book than editors from two publishing companies approached my agent asking if I would be interested in writing a biography about Pete. Unlike the year of research that went into Albert’s story, the Pete biography was fast tracked, so the research, drafts, edits, and early sketches were completed in about five weeks.
As always, each story called out to be written in a different way, but there were similarities, too. Both are full-life biographies. Both chronicle difficult, personal decisions. And both use throughlines to tightly weave the story together.
In Mayor Pete I used a recurring throughline that riffs off of the phrase Only time would tell who Pete Buttigieg would become. The phrase occurs in various forms five times from the opening scene to the closing scene. The closing lets the reader know that the story of Pete Buttigieg is not over—Only time will tell who Pete Buttigieg, presidential candidate, will become.
Four throughlines weave throughout The Fighting Infantryman. They help to establish motif, theme, character, and mood. My favorite throughline from the book focuses on wind. Wind imagery appears seven times in the book—windy shores of Clogerhead; the winds of history blew through America; the breezeless days of summer and the howling winds of winter; a breeze of peace began to blow through the country. The heart-wrenching ending of the story speaks to the acceptance of those who served alongside Albert in the Civil War. The final wind throughline reminds readers of that acceptance—Albert’s fellow soldiers made sure the story of Albert D. J. Cashier did not blow away with the winds of history.
Two American men, two veterans, two LGBTQ+ historical stories, two biographies. Two stories separated by 160 years. Two books released 49 days apart. That’s the tale of two biographies.