Jamey Christoph has illustrated many children’s books in his 15-year career as an illustrator, but it is perhaps his most recent work illustrating a new children’s book on the history of the Stonewall Inn that has become his most personal.
“As a gay artist and as someone who had my own struggles coming to terms with my identity, and valuing these type of stories that show adversity but give hope, it was personal,” Christoph said. “I really gave it my all.”
“Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution,” illustrated by Christoph and written by Rob Sanders, tells the story of the Stonewall Inn and its role in helping to spark the modern-day LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S.
Starting with the building’s beginnings as a horse stable in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood in the 1840s, the picture book covers the history of the famed landmark as it became a bakery and then a restaurant and then finally a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn.
The book goes on to describe the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, when a riot broke out at the Stonewall Inn between bar patrons and police officers in response to one of the police raids that had become a common occurrence at the then-illegal establishment.
The Stonewall uprising, as it is widely known today, and the series of protests that followed helped galvanize the LGBTQ community and resulted in the very first pride march, then called Christopher Street Liberation Day, that occurred in New York City one year later, on June 28, 1970.
“If there was something that kids needed to know about in LGBTQ history, it would be Stonewall, and there was nothing out there in the world of picture books,” Sanders said of his desire to write the book.
“And so I set out with the intention of finding a way to write the story so kids aged five to 10 could read it and understand more about the history of our community,” he said.
Wanting to ensure the story was as accurate as possible, Sanders’ research involved receiving first hand accounts from people who were at the uprising as well as relying on newspaper reports and documentaries.
The challenge then came in trying to decide how to best tell the story while taking in all the different perspectives that had resulted from the event.
“I found that there were so many different stories and different accounts about how Stonewall started, that it became a real process trying to decide how to tell the story,” Sanders said.
That’s when Sanders decided to tell the story from the perspective of the building itself.
“The thought came to me that these buildings have stood here for over 150 years, if only these walls could talk,” he said. “And the thought rang in my head, ‘that may be the way to tell the story.’ To let the buildings talk about how they have watched history through all these years until the night they became a part of history.”
When Christoph was asked to join the project as the book’s illustrator he immediately knew it was something he wanted to be a part of.
He said it has been an honor to be a part of the growing canon of children’s books helping to tell the stories of notable LGBTQ individuals and events that have made a mark throughout history — but have often been ignored by the history books.
“I think learning LGBT history is important — to be able to give that reverence and dignity to this story in the same way we do to early American history and civil rights and suffrage,” Christoph said.
Having grown up gay in what he describes as a “small Southern town,” Christoph understands there may be some individuals who are not so receptive to his latest book project. But he stressed it is still important that these types of stories be told.
“There may not be much support or enthusiasm for books like Stonewall back home, but they are needed in these parts of the country most,” Christoph said. “The thought of creating a safe place, an affirming resource, a picture book that tells this important story to kids for the first time, it gave me such hope as I was drawing.”
Howard Williams, who helped to coordinate a reading and lecture of “Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution" at New York City's LGBT Community Center last month, said with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising occurring this summer, parents could expect children to have more questions about Stonewall and its place in history due to the increased exposure.
“A simple, straightforward answer is the best,” Williams said. “And after an answer, it sometimes might be helpful to listen, ask them if they understand, and ask them what they’re thinking.”
Asked about the importance of a book like the one Christoph and Sanders have produced, Glennda Testone, executive director of the LGBT Community Center, said that understanding history is what "provides the perspective and inspiration needed to keep making progress."
“In order to preserve the rights that we do have and to continue moving forward toward true equity and equality, it's imperative to be aware of the immense effort that so many people have made throughout history to get us to where we are today," she added.