Wordier Than Thou’s Tiffany Razzano recently interviewed St. Petersburg-based children’s author Rob Sanders for Publishers Weekly. They chatted about his nonfiction titles on LGBTQ+ history and civil rights, including Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag and his latest book, Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. PW only had enough space for a few questions, but you can check out the entire interview here!
Tiffany Razzano: The publication of Pride marked a new direction for your work. What sparked your interest in writing about civil rights and LGBTQ history?
Rob Sanders: 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.
TR: Were there any challenges moving from children’s fiction to nonfiction?
RS: Challenges? No. Additional layers of work? Yes. Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether fiction or nonfiction. But nonfiction brings with it a need for research and documentation. Facts matter. History must be communicated accurately—especially to children. So, my writing process for nonfiction is longer and more complex because of the research required. Fortunately, I had a little help with my first nonfiction picture book. In addition to all the research I did for Pride, my publisher was able reach out to Gilbert Baker, the designer of the Pride flag. Gilbert read and vetted the manuscript at two different stages. That process added another layer of authenticity and accuracy to the story.
TR: Why do you think it is important for children to read and learn about LGBTQ+ history?
RS: 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.
TR: How has your personal experience as an educator and a gay man informed your work?
RS: I know I would have benefited as a child and teen if I’d had access to books with positive messages about being gay, books that told me I wasn’t alone in the world, that I fit in, that I could be myself. As an educator, I know children are looking for those same things in books today. They want to see themselves and their families in books. They want and need validation of who they are. And, as an educator and gay man, I know that everyone needs books that help us see beyond ourselves into the lives and experiences of others. That’s one step in overcoming prejudice, bullying, and disrespect. Rudine Sims Bishop called books that helped us see ourselves and see others “mirrors and windows.” Our world needs more mirrors and windows, and I want to write books that are both.
TR: In Pride and Stonewall, you tackled well-known stories from the LGBTQ+ movement. You’ve announced several new books (Albert D. J. Cashier: The Best Kept Secret of the Civil War, Two Grooms on a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding, and Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg) which seem to focus on lesser known, more nuanced stories from LGBTQ+ history. Was this an intentional shift? How do you choose your nonfiction topics?
RS: I write the stories that call out to me. Of course, not everything that calls out to me will become a published book. Still, I chase after the call of the story. It comes in different ways. When researching one book, I might discover another story I want to pursue. That happened with both Albert D. J. Cashier (coming from Little Bee in 2020) and Two Grooms on a Cake (Little Bee, 2021). My research for Pride led me to both of those stories. Sometimes I’ll be thinking and reading about a subject—such as Pete Buttigieg—and an editor will come along and ask me to write the story. That story called out to me in a different way. I researched, drafted, and went through numerous revisions of that manuscript in a four- to five-week period. Mayor Pete is already in the hands of an illustrator and will be released in spring 2020. Bottom line, I write what calls out to me, then I hope that my writing will call out to an editor.
TR: The Stonewall riots and police raids were violent events, and there was a lot of fear surrounding them. What was your approach to tackling such intense material for children?
RS: 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!
TR: In one of your bios, you make a point to say that you’ll always write fiction and have a new book, Ball & Balloon, being released by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in August. Has the success you’ve had writing nonfiction books on LGBTQ+ history influenced your fiction at all?
RS: What an interesting question. I’ve never stopped writing fiction, and these days I never stop researching nonfiction. One person described by books as fierce and funny. I like that. And that comment may point to one way my nonfiction LGBTQ+-themed picture books have impacted my fictional writing. As my nonfiction has become more “fierce,” my fiction has become more lighthearted and fun. I think the nonfiction side has loosened up my fictional side for some reason. My fiction writing has also become tighter, with shorter and shorter manuscripts. But whether fiction or nonfiction, I still want my writing to have an emotional impact of my readers. I think fierce and funny books can both do that.