Brandon author Rob Sanders talks about ‘Stonewall,’ his picture-book history for children

The elementary school teacher’s eighth book tells the story of a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement.
Published June 14

BRANDON — The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement, might introduce some adults to a chapter of American history that they don’t know.

Thanks to Brandon author Rob Sanders, for the first time there’s a book for children that tells that story. Published in April, Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution is a handsomely illustrated picture book for kids ages 5 to 8. It is Sanders’ eighth children’s book; he’ll publish his ninth, Ball & Balloon, in August. His earlier picture books include 2018 Florida Book Awards gold medal winner Rodzilla.

Sanders, 60, teaches at Mintz Elementary School in Brandon. “I teach fourth grade, but I’m moving to second grade next year,” Sanders said during an interview at a Brandon bookstore.

Born and raised in Springfield, Mo., Sanders has taught in Hillsborough County schools for 16 years. Does he still love teaching? “I do most days. The kids are always great.”

How long have you been writing books, and how did you get started?

I’ve been publishing books for about 11 years. My students guilt-tripped me into it. When I would read to them, they’d say, “Where are your books?” So I took that challenge. I’m now at eight books published and five more coming out in the next couple of years.

The kids are excited when my books come out. We publish some of their work, too. I tell them that publishing is the final stage. They turn it in and say, “I’m done,” and I say, no, actually.

What did you do before you became a teacher?

I started out working for 15 years in educational publishing for the Southern Baptist Convention. I published a lot with them. In a lot of ways, it was a great job. But I was outed and fired.

I had been thinking about leaving for years — how was I going to get out of this? It was kind of a golden handcuff, because it was a good job. But the atmosphere was so conservative. I was in my 40s and had been coming out to my family and friends, and I felt comfortable with that. So a year later I was in Florida, helping my sister care for our mom.

Your first five books were fictional picture books, but with the last three you’ve switched to nonfiction, writing about the history of the gay rights and civil rights movements for children. What led you to that shift?

I always loved nonfiction. Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag was inspired the night of the Supreme Court decision (on marriage equality). The White House was washed in rainbow colors, and I thought, a lot of my students have no idea what that flag means. I wrote the first draft that night. Then I had to do the research!

What reactions to the books have you seen from students and adults?

I’ve read my books to all my students and never asked for permission, but with Pride I thought it was a good time to have a conversation with the (school) district, with supervisors, principals, libraries: What do you think? What should I do? The feedback was positive. There were some words of caution, but no one said, “Don’t do it.”

I wrote a flier to parents giving them the option to opt out of the reading. Only three of my 44 students were opted out. One parent made a lot of phone calls, even to the state, and so my reading was delayed three weeks. The book was already in schools all over Hillsborough County; I was the only person not able to read it.

What happened with the release of Stonewall?

This year I just read Stonewall to my students and let them discuss it. Student reaction is always interesting. The hardest thing for a teacher is to hush up and not direct the conversation.

With Pride, I had one student who said, “My church doesn’t believe gay is right.” I was so primed to answer that, but I sat back. Another student said, “Well, my church doesn’t believe that way.” And they talked. It was a reality check among the fourth-graders.

With Stonewall, students were saying, “My auntie is gay” or “My uncle got married to a man last year.” And of course some of their parents are gay. A book that references their own families always appeals to them.

What are the challenges of writing about potentially controversial history for young readers?

My kids always really love reading stories about civil rights, women’s rights, farm workers. They’re thrilled by success, and they’re incensed by injustice. Kids believe equality is for everyone.

This is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, but it had never been done in picture-book format. It was a struggle to figure out how to make it accessible.

I ended up writing about the history of the Stonewall Inn itself. It was originally two buildings that were horse stables. The book is their view of history, until the night they became history. I was always focused on the buildings, but it wasn’t until late in my drafting that the buildings actually began telling their story as “we.” It’s the idea of “If these walls could talk.”

There are so many different stories there, and I couldn’t tell them all. They say history depends on where you’re standing. Focusing on the buildings allowed me to focus not just on the riots but on the history of the neighborhood.

Were you concerned about describing a riot in a children’s book?

These are kids who every month have a lockdown drill on what to do if there’s an active shooter, starting in pre-K. Violence unfortunately is part of our world. I would like to protect my kids from all of it. But learning about violence in history is less traumatic than living in a violent world. I think not teaching history would be controversial.

Are any of your upcoming books about LGBTQ history?

I have two nonfiction books coming early next year. One is about a transgender Civil War soldier, Albert Cashier. The other one is about Mayor Pete (Buttigieg). I was asked to write it about two months ago, so I researched it and wrote it and it’s gone to the illustrator. Pete, by the way, is not the first openly gay candidate for president. (Gay rights activist Fred Karger ran for the Republican nomination in 2012.) In 2021 I’ll have Two Grooms on a Cake: America’s First Gay Wedding. It was in 1971, so it will be published on the 50th anniversary. I love a good anniversary.

Your Pride book was inspired by your personal reaction to history. Did you find you had a personal connection to Stonewall?

I would have been 10 years old that night. I would have been asleep in my bed. It was my mother’s 40th birthday. It just struck me that there were people fighting for the rights of the person I didn’t even know I was yet. What we do today can have powerful effects on kids in the future.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution

By Rob Sanders; illustrated by Jamey Christoph

Random House Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, $17.99

Rob Sanders will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Advertisement