The Three A’s of Picture Book Bios
A mini master class from STONEWALL author Rob Sanders.
By Rob Sanders, #19PBbios author of STONEWALL
Is it possible for picture books to be part of your DNA? If so, that could explain the nearly 400 linear feet of shelves filled with picture books in my home office. And it might account for the 300+ volumes of children’s book that make up my classroom library. Many of the books in my collection are nonfiction, and the majority of those titles are biographies. If I’m “forced” to read an “adult” book, I’ll most likely choose a biography or autobiography.
Picture books may not actually be in my DNA, but family stories and a love of history surely are. If nature is not to be blamed (or credited), then perhaps the explanation is nurture. One of the first books I was given as a child (and that I still own) was Illustrated Minute Biographies: 150 Life Stories of Famous People by Samuel Nisenson and William A. De Witt.
I sometimes call myself an accidental author of picture book biographies. My first—Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag—was a book written from my heart the night of the SCOTUS marriage equality decision. Research followed after the first draft, of course. Then came my nonfiction book Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights which was really my attempt to organize my thoughts after another larger project had been rejected countless times. That organizational process became an alphabetical lyrical listing of ways to peacefully protest—but I hadn’t set out to write that book. It was not until my third nonfiction book that I intentionally set out to write a biography.
Knowing that the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising was coming in 2019, I set out to write the history of that event. A biography of a riot. A biography told by the buildings where the riot took place. A biography entitled Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. Three A’s became part of my process.
Where were you in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969? I was 10 years old, and I was asleep in my bed in our un-air-conditioned house in Springfield, Missouri. I had no idea that people in New York City were protesting that night for the rights for the person I would one day become. I am grateful for those people, and I wanted to tell their story. Because I am a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I immediately had an authentic reason for writing a book about the Stonewall Uprising. My personal connection provided me a platform for writing the story, it gave me a reason to pitch the story to my agent and then an editor, it gave my editor a purposeful hook when he took the book to acquisitions, and it gives me authenticity when I speak, blog, and share about the book.
Having that kind of personal connection with a biography or nonfiction topic—while not always possible—makes a huge difference in this age of own voices. And rightly so. I wouldn’t have any credibility writing about Cesar Chavez and the farm workers strikes. I have no connection with that story, and while I empathize with and admire Chavez’s work, I cannot portray his experience with authenticity. Undoubtedly, someone else can do a better job of that. I have to choose stories to tell that are authentic to me . . . and so do you.
The research that goes into a picture book biography is essential in order to tell an accurate story. Unlike my PRIDE book that was written from the heart, then researched and my PEACEFUL FIGHTS book which was almost an accident, STONEWALL was a deliberately and meticulously researched book. I read accounts of the Uprising (both firsthand accounts and the accounts of historians), and newspaper articles from the following day. I found interview footage from some who had been at the Uprising, watched documentaries, and read everything I could put my hands on about the life of those in the LGBTQIA+ community in 1969, the laws in New York City, and more.
To better understand the actual buildings and neighborhood, I worked with the Greenwich Village Historical Society. They helped with research and vetting of the manuscript. I found documents from when Greenwich Village received its New York historical designation and was able to find out everything from the size and number of windows in the Stonewall Inn, to the kind of stucco used on the walls. I found weather reports from June 1969 and confirmed that there was an almost-full moon the night of the uprising, and a diary entry from a 12-year-old girl in the late 1880s confirmed that Greenwich Village Streets were cobblestone. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the work was the photographic research that led me to see the two adjoining buildings that made up the Stonewall Inn throughout more than a century of their existence.
As a matter of fact, I had so much research that the story became unwieldy. There were so many accounts of what happened that night that I didn’t know which one to pursue. As one historian told me, “History depends on where you’re standing at the moment.” So, there were/are many different accounts of who or what started the Uprising—and according to the historian, they all should be considered as being accurate.
But how was I to tell all those stories in one book for children? Eventually, I landed on the idea of telling the story of the Uprising from the perspective of the buildings themselves. My research made it possible to trace the history of the buildings from when they were horse stables, to a bakery, a restaurant, and eventually a gay club. Accuracy was important from the first draft, through revisions with my editor, through vetting by eight experts, and even when looking at sketches and finished art for the book. Accuracy is essential.
When authenticity and accuracy combine, they can help create a book that has authority. A book that can stand up to critics, a book that can stand proudly on library shelves and in classrooms, and a book that can introduce children to an untold or under-told story. A book with authority has the power to influence others, and in some cases to educate, change minds, and enlighten. Though it’s out of an author’s control, a biography with authority may also stand the test of time, becoming an evergreen title, a touchstone for other books on the same subject, or the go-to book on a particular subject.
So, my writing friends, find your authentic voice and the stories you can authentically tell. Then do the work—research, research, research—so that your writing is accurate. Let the authenticity and accuracy of your work combine together to create a picture book biography that has authority.
About Rob Sanders
Rob is a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. His nonfiction picture books include Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag (illustrated by Stephen Salerno) and Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights (illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr). His latest book, Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. (illustrated by Jamey Christoph), releases in April and is the first picture book about the Stonewall Uprising and is, in fact, a biography of the Stonewall Inn which tells its own story about the night it became part of history.