As someone who also does a daunting amount of research for my books, I completely relate to Rob Sanders’ experiences, shared below. Not only do we writers need to answer the question of why a certain story matters, we have to figure out how it matters to our young readers. I love the way Rob illuminates this process and am pleased to help him celebrate not one but two new books: Two Grooms on a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding, illustrated by Robbie Cathro (Little Bee Books) and Stitch by Stitch: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, illustrated by Jamey Christophe (Magination Press).
To me, a story is often like a building with a locked door. I can see the building, I can explore its exterior; I can measure, map, and diagram what I see; I can record what I feel, hear, and smell; I can even do painstaking research to learn the origins of the building. But as long as that door is locked, I can’t get inside.
Have you ever looked at a stack of research you’ve done about a topic or the pile of various drafts of a story and felt the same way? I have. And therein lies one of the most difficult things about writing—finding the way into a story. Finding your way into a story means two things. First it points to how you, as a writer, will get into the story and put words on paper. That speaks to perspective, point of view, format, structure, and probably a whole host of other things. Getting into a story also indicates how an author will make a story approachable, accessible, inviting, and engaging to kid readers. In my latest two releases, I worked to find my way into the story and to make each story have an entry point for readers, too.
The story behind TWO GROOMS ON A CAKE: THE STORY OF AMERICA’S FIRST GAY WEDDING (illustrated by Robbie Cathro, Little Bee Books) was one that I knew I need to tell as soon as I discovered it. But how do you write a picture book biography about two men falling in love, the legal hurdles and twists and turns involved in getting a marriage license in 1971, and how in the world do you make a wedding interesting to kids? After several drafts (none of which were working as I’d hoped) I asked myself, “What did you enjoy about going to weddings when you were a kid?” Only one answer came to mind—CAKE! Instantly, I had my way into the story and the hook that would make it appealing to readers. I decided to tell parallel stories—one about how a wedding cake is made and the other about how a relationship is formed. The voice of the narrator morphed into the two grooms who stood proudly on top of that cake 50 years ago. I had found my way into the story and opened a door for readers to come into the story, too.
STITCH BY STITCH: CLEVE JONES AND THE AIDS MEMORIAL QUILT (illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Magination Press) was an equally compelling story to tell and an equally difficult story to present to readers. The book describes homophobia, discusses HIV and AIDS, and chronicles the efforts of Cleve Jones to memorialize the deaths from that pandemic. I learned early on that Cleve’s great grandmother made a quilt for him when he was born and that he still has that quilt today. That fact became the bookends of the story and the beginnings of an entry point for readers. Telling the story and doing so in an age-appropriate way was not difficult, it just took some effort. But when I had completed the draft, I realized something was still missing. The story needed something to hold it together, something memorable, something readers could hold onto. I remembered that I had written a poem about Cleve and the quilt some time ago. I pulled out that poem and saw how each stanza represented a different part of the story I had written. I cut and pasted the poem into the appropriate spots throughout the manuscript. Once again, I had found a way into the story as a writer, and I think I made a way in for readers as well.
When you’re trying to decide how to get words on paper, how to tell the story that’s in your mind and on your heart—find an entry point. Find something that will allow you to tell the story as no one else can. And find something that will bring readers into the story so they can experience it and remember it.
Rob Sanders is a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. He is known for his funny and fierce fiction and nonfiction picture books and is recognized as one of the pioneers in the arena of LGBTQ+ literary nonfiction picture books. Rob’s nonfiction books continue to break new ground—the first picture books about the Pride Flag, the Stonewall Uprising, a transgender Civil War soldier, a gay presidential candidate, the first gay marriage in America and Rob’s work introduces readers to heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community—from Harvey Milk to Gilbert Baker, from Cleve Jones to Bayard Rustin, and more. His fiction explores friendship, relationships, standing up for others, and being allies. Blood Brothers, his first middle grade novel, written in powerful, raw verse releases in Spring 2022. And Rob pays it forward. He serves as co-regional advisor for SCBWI Florida and is a frequent speaker, teacher, mentor, coach, and critiquer. Rob is represented by Rubin Pfeffer.