David Gardner answers questions about The Harvey Milk Story! (See post below!)
1. What made you decide to do a book about Harvey Milk? And why for children?
The biography's a time-honored sub-genre in children's books, telling kids the stories of our heroes: Washington, Lincoln, Dr. King, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks -- why not tell them about our historic figures who happened to be gay and lesbian. I felt Harvey's story needed to be told, so I jumped at the chance when Two Lives Publishing asked me. As a gay man, I want life to be better for the next generations, straight and gay. One way this can happen is by telling our children the stories of people who grew up to make a difference. When I received the manuscript to illustrate, I loved how the writer, Kari Krakow, approached Harvey's story as one of a kid who was different, and who embraced his differences, and grew up to help others who were different. I think that's a universal story, one that children especially grapple with. At least I did as a boy.
2. You've said you felt Harvey's spirit while you were illustrated the book--can you talk about that?
I read Randy Shilts' "Mayor of Castro Street" and watched the brilliant documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" over and over, but still, there were periods in the text that I could not find reference for. So I did all kinds of research -- the story spans from the Thirties to the Seventies. Then, like a novelist, I had to dream. For example, I imagined what a Jewish wedding would look like in the Fifties, how Harvey's parents would look, how they might age. Photos of them were all blurry.
By that point, Harvey was real for me, he felt like a long-lost friend. I felt his big spirit guiding me -- smiling, flashy, charming, brave and scared and gregarious. (Harvey's much more outgoing than I am.) Painting his life felt like remembering, capturing moments as if he were showing me his personal snapshots. I felt a responsibility to get it right -- I didn't want to disappoint him. In the end, the book is, for me, a memorial to Harvey MIlk's spirit. That's why the candlelight memorial scene repeats, why the illustrations move from darkness to light, to reflect the hope that Harvey talks about. "You gotta give them hope."
3. Besides my son, who saw the book, plucked it up and read it, asked a million question and then clamored to see the film, what's been the response from kids and parents and educators? (I clearly think this is a book that should be in every school library.)
Honestly, I was bracing against more protest, but the reaction has been positive. (Maybe things are changing!) Librarians, I've heard, have been most supportive, like K.T. Hornig on her blog Worth the Trip -- a fan from the start. She heads the CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center), who have a popular librarians' listserve. The CCBC listed Harvey in its "best books" booklet in 2001. I think it's gotten to teachers mostly through GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network), teachers using it for "social justice" units. Apparently there's a curriculum guide to the book at the Bank Street School of Education in NYC. Kids who see the book seem to get it -- maybe kids see through all the negative social conditioning easier than grown-ups.
4. What are you working on now?
I'm happily putting the finishing touches on an adult novel, "Mercyville," which happens to have the same theme as "The Harvey Milk Story": How hard, and yet, how vital it is for us to stand up for who we are. I'm shopping that manuscript to publishers and agents now.
5. What questions didn't I ask that I should have??
Hmm. One thing no one's asked yet, that I took a secret delight in putting in: Who's the girl and woman who appear in the beginning and end, the candlelight vigil. I snuck in 11-year-old Medora Payne, who's mentioned in the book working on Harvey's campaign. Since this is a book for children, I thought it would be neat to see Medora in more of the book. I imagined she would go to the memorial, with her mother. She'd be in the neighborhood, so she even appears in the background of Harvey's camera shop, peering in the window with her friend to see who's just moved into the neighborhood. There -- now my secret is out.
There's more information at www.harveymilkstory.com