Interview with Rob Sanders

Rob Sanders

Rob Sanders is a picture book author, teacher, and mentor to other writers. His books include Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, illustrated by Jared Anthony Schorr, and Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (forthcoming on April 23, 2019).

Alison Goldberg: What inspires you to write for children?

Rob Sanders: It might be easier to tell what doesn’t inspire me to write for children—inspiration is truly everywhere. In addition to being a children’s author, I’m also a fourth grade language arts teacher. During a writers workshop lesson about ten or eleven years ago some of my students asked, “Where are your books, Mr. Sanders?” In fact, I was first published in my early twenties and paid my way through college and graduate school with work-for-hire writing, but none of that writing was children’s literature. My students’ question challenged and inspired me and started my picture book writing journey. Now I find inspiration everywhere—in the things kids say, a news story, friends and relatives, nature, and more.

AG: Have you noticed any changes since you first started writing children’s books in terms of the stories published about activism and social justice?

RS: Yes, in the decade since I started writing picture books, lots of things have changed in children’s publishing including books about activism and social justice. Six years ago, I was told by a well-known editor that a middle grade novel I was working on couldn’t include a boy-boy crush. That attitude has certainly changed. Five years ago you could count on one hand the number of nonfiction books that dealt with LGBTQ themes and topics. Actually, you probably would have only needed a couple of fingers to do the counting. Now I’ve written two nonfiction books with LGBTQ themes and have more coming out. And other authors are writing those books, too. In addition, while there were books about the Civil Rights movement a decade ago, there were few books that introduced kids to the struggles for equal rights for women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and on and on and on. That has begun to change. Part of that change has come because of the Common Core Standards requirement for more nonfiction books, part of that has come as more and more own-voice authors have begun to tell our stories, and part of that has come as publishers have begun to realize there’s a need for more people from underrepresented groups to be working in publishing and writing children’s book, and I think publishers are realizing there are untold or under-told stories that kids need to read, know about, and be inspired by.

Pride Cover
AG: While reading Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, I was struck by how the painful moment of Milk’s assassination takes place in the middle of the story. The focus shifts to his legacy, the flag, and the hopes of the movement over decades. I found this very powerful. At what point in the writing process did you decide to tell the story in this way?

RS: I knew from the beginning that PRIDE: THE STORY OF HARVEY MILK AND THE RAINBOW FLAG was a book with intersecting biographies—one about Harvey Milk and one about the Rainbow or Pride Flag itself. In real life (and in the book), Gilbert Baker, an artist Harvey asked to help create a symbol for the fledgling LGBT movement in San Francisco back in 1978, created the intersection between the two stories. It was Gilbert who had the idea to create the Rainbow Flag. To get to the creation of the flag and its importance, readers had to meet Harvey, and Harvey had to introduce them to Gilbert. Harvey’s assassination could have been the end of his dream for equality, pride, hope, and love, and it could have been the end of the Rainbow Flag. But it wasn’t. One characteristic of children’s books (especially picture books and middle grade novels) is that they leave readers with a sense of hope. I love that the page turn in PRIDE that follows the candlelight memorial for Harvey and Mayor Moscone shows Rainbow Flags spelling out the word H-O-P-E. That is what Harvey, Gilbert, and the flag provided then and now to our community—hope.

hope page

AG: I love how the story includes so many different versions of the Rainbow Flag, including the mile-long one winding down New York City Streets in 1994, the bumper stickers, and the ones hanging from lampposts and homes. In addition to showing the deepening of the movement, it shows readers there are so many ways to get involved.

Speaking of many ways to get involved in movements, Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights is filled with actions, as well as references to historical and contemporary social justice struggles. How did this book come about?

RS: Stephen Salerno did an incredible job showing the vibrancy of Rainbow Flags throughout the world in his illustrations in PRIDE. Thanks for noticing the references to various social justice struggles in PEACEFUL FIGHTS FOR EQUAL RIGHTS. I would encourage everyone who reads the book to study Jared Andrew Schorr’s cut-paper illustrations in the book which show even more examples of historical and contemporary struggles for social justice. PEACEFUL FIGHTS was a book that happened almost by accident. I had written an ABC history of the United States that my agent and I loved. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find an editor who was interested in publishing the book. Months later, I was looking through my electronic research files related to that book and found a list I’d made of ways to peacefully protest. I started playing with those words, organizing them, ordering them, repeating some, and creating what I call a “lyrical listing” (others might call it a poem). I considered it an experiment and a good writing exercise. But as soon as my agent saw the project, he sent off to an editor who acquired it that very day. The book was fast tracked so it could be out before last year’s mid-term elections and is now in its second printing.

Peaceful fights interior
AG: As a teacher, how do you hope Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights can be used in classrooms?

RS: First of all, I hope that PEACEFUL FIGHTS FOR EQUAL RIGHTS is in classroom and school libraries so kids can check it out and read it. I hope the book starts conversations and causes kids to want to learn more about the origins of peaceful protest, how those protests became the cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement, and I hope kids will be curious and want to read more about sit-ins, strikes, petitions, boycotts, and other forms of peaceful protests. If children become empowered to become activists for the causes that are important to them, that would be the icing on the cake!

peaceful fights cover
AG: Your next picture book, Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution., releases in April. I am looking forward to reading this book, and I noticed in its description that the story is narrated by the Stonewall Inn itself. Why did you choose this perspective?

RS: Packaging and presenting a story in an engaging way is one of the most important things an author can do. I wanted to help kids have an entry point to this unfamiliar part of history. I felt it was important for kids to know about the event that many consider the beginning of the modern movement for LGBTQ rights. But, how? I wrote four or five drafts of the story, but nothing felt right. One day, while thinking about the book and the Stonewall Inn, I wondered, If these walls could talk, what would they say? I jotted down: 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. Those three sentences became the opening of the book, and the story flowed from there.

steonwall cover
AG: What are some of your favorite books about activism and social justice for children?

RS: There are too many to list! Three authors I highly recommend are Carole Boston Weather, Lesléa Newman, and Gayle E. Pittman. All three are prolific, beautiful writers who write about a myriad of topics—but among their books are many on social justice issues. One of my favorite categories of books these days are survey books, such as: First Generation: 36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great by Sandra Neil Wallace, Rich Wallace, and Agata Nowicka; Enough: 20 Protesters Who Changed America by Emily Easton and Ziyeu Chen; and What Would She Do? 25 True Stories of Trailblazing Rebel Women by Kay Woodward, et al. If folks are interested, on my web site I have a list of LGBTQ-friendly picture books and a list compiled by my friend, Shannon Hitchcock, of LGBTQ-friendly middle grade novels. I invite folks to check them out.

AG: Is there anything else you want to add?

RS: There’s an old proverb that says, “No student will be greater than his teacher, but every student will be like his teacher.” That’s both a humbling and frightening thought. I would just remind all of us adults—whether we’re teachers or not—that children are looking to us for guidance and leadership. We are their examples. They will emulate us. Let’s be worthy of that responsibility.

AG: Thank you, Rob!!

Learn more about Rob Sanders at https://www.robsanderswrites.com.