Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illus. Steven Salerno
Random House, April 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Sewing the Rainbow: The Story of Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag
by Gayle E. Pitman, illus. Holly Clifton-Brown
Magination Press, June 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Plot Summary: On this 40th anniversary of the rainbow flag’s creation we get not one but TWO delightful, groundbreaking picture books about the symbol. In Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, the story focuses on the rise and death of activist Harvey Milk. Direct quotes from Milk are interspersed throughout a historical survey of events that ranges from the flag’s 1978 debut to 2015’s rainbow-lit White House celebrating marriage equality. In Sewing the Rainbow: The Story of Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag, the artist Gilbert Baker gets his due as the flag’s mastermind. Readers learn less about the LGBTQIA+ movement and more about the artist himself—in “colorful, sparkly, glittery” detail no less!
Queer Rep: First, let’s talk about the illustrations. In Sewing the Rainbow, as young Baker travels from “gray and dull and flat” Kansas to the military base to “MAGIC” San Francisco, color (or the lack of it) corresponds beautifully with Baker’s feelings of happiness and belonging. Historical figures like Mama José Julio Sarria (founder of the Imperial Court system), Sylvester, and Harvey Milk are also included—albeit without much context.
Pride‘s art has a much more retro feel, using patterns and more representative illustrations in its colorful palette to paint a picture of the movement writ large. For instance, there’s an image of two male-presenting individuals on a tandem bicycle with “Just Married” trailing behind them. In another spread, readers see the flag’s ubiquity in people’s hands and on buildings. Overall, Pride has a greater diversity of characters (ethnicities, abilities, sexualities), along with this feeling of being a part of something much larger than any one story.
Honestly, the two books couldn’t be more different. I hate to sound picky but it’s really a matter of what’s said and unsaid that makes it or breaks it for these titles. On the one hand, you have Pride, through which an undercurrent of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement and a beautiful message of hope runs deep. But Pride also seems to downplay Baker’s importance by shifting major focus to Milk. On the other hand, you have Sewing the Rainbow, which is a more focalized personal narrative that doesn’t even mention the word “gay” until its (rather detailed) reader note. Instead, the text uses the euphemism of a Baker being “colorful, sparkly, glittery” to code as queer. It fails as a biography by oversimplifying a key aspect of Baker’s identity—not to mention members of the intended audience.
Final Word: I’m incredibly grateful for both books. But, taken side by side, each ultimately carries what the other lacks. I think the books would have a better shot at the Stonewall if they fused together to create a more holistic picture of the rainbow flag’s origins within context. But, alas, that is not the book at hand.
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