I remember getting the chills the first time I read these lines in Rob Sanders’ picture book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag from Random House Books for Young Readers:
“Harvey Milk was an ordinary man, but he had an extraordinary dream. That dream would change history. Harvey dreamed that everyone — even gay people — would have equality. He dreamed that he and his friends would be treated like everyone else. He dreamed that one day, people would be able to live and love as they pleased.”
Rob was signing copies at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference in Oakland, where I was signing copies of Manjhi Moves a Mountain in 2017. My sister, Sharon Churnin Nash, who is my constant cheerleader and support was with me. She found Rob’s book first and came to me concerned. She knew I had a manuscript about the rainbow flag in a drawer, a manuscript that despite my best intentions and hard work, never seemed to come alive. She worried I might be upset.
Instead, I read Rob’s book and was immediately elated by the melody of his words and Steve Salerno’s bright, vibrant illustrations. I knew in that moment that I no longer had to work on that manuscript. Rob’s book had accomplished everything I’d hoped for. I realized that what I had really wanted, deep in my heart, was for a book like this to exist. Now, because of Rob, it did.
Rob took the true story of the creation of the rainbow flag and captured its significance in a simple, engaging way that the youngest kids could understand. It is a story about equality, about fairness, about hope and love. While the focus is on the LGBT community and the discrimination they have faced, ultimately it’s an inclusive book that affirms the fundamental rights of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Rob started writing the book on June 26, 2015 to celebrate that uplifting day when the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. What began as a joyful journey was tempered by subsequent setbacks for equal rights, from attacks on the ability of transgender to serve in the military to a refusal to protect the GLBT community from employment discrimination.
Those challenges made him more determined to create a book that children could understand. And that is another reason that this book is so important. If people in the LGBT community are to have equal rights going forward, kids need to grow up with awareness of how the community has struggled for fairness.
Rob didn’t shy away from the tragedy of Harvey Milk’s murder. But he quickly pivots to the hope, exemplified by the rainbow flag, that didn’t die and, instead, continues to grow.
“Equality. Pride. Hope. Love. Harvey’s dream became a flag for us all.”
I owe another debt to Rob that I will thank him for right here. The eloquent authenticity of his pivot helped me when I wrote Martin and Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, illustrated by the marvelous Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books/Lerner Books). I knew I had to address the tragedy of the loss of these great souls who would have celebrated their 90th birthday this year, but I knew I needed to move quickly, as he had done, to what would never die — their words and their spirits. And so I wrote:
“But no one could kill the way Martin inspired others. Just as Anne’s words will never die.”
I love how Rob describes Harvey Milk as an ordinary man with an extraordinary dream because, after all, that’s what Rob is. Every school day, he walks into an ordinary classroom and teaches ordinary kids how to read and write which, when you think about it, is the thing teachers ordinarily do.
And like Harvey Milk, Rob has a dream. His dream to create books that makes kids feel loved, affirmed and supportive of others.
Rob continues to fulfill that dream with more terrific books: Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, a story about standing up peacefully for what’s right (illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr, Simon & Schuster, 2018), and Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. (illustrated by Jamey Christoph), which released April 23 from Random House Books for Young Readers.
With Stonewall, Rob has taken on another tough topic — talking to kids about the Stonewall uprising where people in the LGBT community took a stand for their rights 50 years ago.
There are many different accounts of what happened. Rob thought and thought and ultimately decided to let the walls of the building where people rose up tell the story.
“Two stable houses, side by side. For more than 100 years, we witnessed history. Then came a night when we became part of history.”
The brilliance of the concept becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the narrative. By telling the story from the point of view of the buildings, Rob gives us the perspective of time from walls that are free from the prejudices that plague people. It’s the power of that gentle clarity that made Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse so effective — telling war through the eyes of a horse that sees no differences between people on opposing sides other than who is kind and who is not — and the reports of astronauts who remind us how the differences we fuss over so much on the earth are nothing from the long view of space.
Again, as in Pride, the writing is simple. Clear. Easy for children and all ages to understand.
“Leading up to the 1960s, our neighborhood welcomed gays and lesbians — men who loved men, and women who loved women. We were a home for people who were told that they didn’t fit in or belong.”
His words make you wish people could be as wise as the walls that watch them. Maybe some day we will be.
In the meantime, I’m glad I have a front row seat watching Rob’s lovely, lyrical and important books enter and exist in the world.
Want to learn with Rob? Rob Sanders and Lesléa Newman are leading a workshop entitled Writing the Rainbow: Crafting Picture Books with LGBTQ+ themes for the Highlights Foundation, October 27-30, 2019. It’s an immersive experience to help authors of all skill levels learn how to create LGBTQ+ themed fiction and nonfiction picture books for today’s market.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steve Salerno, Random House Books for Young Readers
Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr, Simon & Schuster
Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Random House
Facebook: Rob Sanders