Before taking pen to paper (figuratively) for his latest project, children’s book author Rob Sanders considered whether the very young were ready to learn about one of the pivotal events in America’s not-always-pretty quest for gay rights.
Sanders, a 4th grade language art teacher in a Hillsborough County elementary school, didn’t really have to think about it too long.
“I’ve worked with kids in all kinds of different ways for many, many years, in school and in volunteer organizations and other things,” explains the author of Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution (Random House). “And I know that for kids to be able to function and live in a world productively, they need information and knowledge.”
Two of Sanders’ previous books, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag and Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights also explored history from a civil rights perspective (the latter received the 2018 Florida Book Awards bronze medal; Sanders also took home the gold for his 2017 book Rodzilla).
“I know that information about LGBTQ+ history is missing from bookshelves and libraries,” Sanders, 60, explains. “There are a few books out there, but not enough – and certainly not picture books. So I want to be sure that information is shared with children.”
Stonewall is beautifully illustrated by Jamey Christoph, a graduate of the Ringling College of Art and Design. It’s intended for ages 5 to 9, approximately.
Both author and illustrator will be in attendance Saturday (April 27) at a SunLit Festival book launch event at thestudio@620. Bob Devin Jones and an ensemble cast will read from the book, the story of the infamous 1969 clash between New York police and members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community at the Stonewall Inn. This incident – 50 years ago this summer – is seen as a pivotal moment in the establishment of gay rights in America.
Sanders is also aware that the subject matter might make some parents uncomfortable. He teaches according to Florida’s State standards. “That what I’m assigned to teach and really, any text can do that,’ he says. “Civil rights, and this era of the ‘60s, is not anywhere in my Standards as a 4th grade language arts teacher. But books about those things can still teach what I need to teach.
“In Florida, and in Hillsborough County, we do have a policy that allows parents to opt out of certain lessons or certain texts, knowing that some parents will consider different kinds of things controversial that someone else might not.”
Recent “controversial” subjects have included Climate Change, and the 2016 presidential election.
“Last year when I read Pride to my students, of the 42 I have, three parents opted out of that lesson. And those kids went to another room and had a separate lesson. I haven’t scheduled a reading of Stonewall yet but I’ll go through that same process, to let parents know about the book. And then if we need an opt out option, we’ll do that.”
In his classroom, Sanders adds, “They are obsessed with the civil rights movement. Any class I’ve had, when we were reading about the ‘60s and civil rights, they become the most enthusiastic little activists – ‘We should stand up for the rights of others!’ ‘How dare people treat other people this way?’ They really get fired up about it.
“For them to see that the ‘60s didn’t solve all the issues folks hoped it would, they see that there’s still a struggle for equality.”
Most importantly, he believes, books like Stonewall will start dialogues. Most kids today, living in an essentially LGBTQ+-friendly society, are more accepting, and open to a broader education, than they were even 20 or 30 years ago.
“Kids are kids, always and forever,” Sanders explains. “But I do think the world in which kids are growing up today is different. Kids who are dealing with gender, or who even identify as transgender, we wouldn’t have thought about that a few years ago. But now we don’t hardly blink an eye except to accommodate that child, ‘because this is who you are.’”
The text and illustrations in Stonewall steer clear of the violence that reportedly took place as activists and police clashed on June 28, 1969.
“I think the challenge with a children’s non-fiction book is to represent history accurately and age-appropriately,’ the author says. “And I would hope that although this book is written for ages 5 to 8, 5 to 9, in that range, it’ll certainly be read by middle schoolers and high schoolers. With older kids, I hope the book would fan the flame of wanting to know more information.”
Saturday’s event is co-produced by Tombolo Books, which will have copies of Stonewall for sale; books are also available by calling Tombolo at (727)-755-9456.