By Teresa Kane
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag tells the story of the creation of the first Pride flag in 1978. It moves from the very beginning of Harvey Milk’s first political campaign, to the creation of the first rainbow flag, to our current times, with the flag being flown all over the world. It is rare for members of a marginalized community to see our history in books, and almost never in books for children. Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag is a step in the right direction, and I’m glad it was written—even if I don’t love everything about it.
The illustrations by Steven Salerno are gorgeous, mixing the bright and bold colors of the flag with more subdued background figures. Each page is a different color, with a purple sea of people on one page and a dark blue cityscape on the next. We see masses of humanity marching and protesting and fighting together, all with the rainbow flag weaving through the pages. The feeling of the 1970’s is captured perfectly in the pencil drawings of women in bell bottoms dipping fabric into vats of dye. There is a beautiful spread of the White House bathed in rainbow lights that gives me goosebumps.
While this book is full of life and hope and beauty, it is not perfect. For one, it’s not until page three of the book that gay people are explicitly mentioned. Instead, the story begins with Harvey Milk dreaming about equality for everyone, and about how he personally can make a difference.
As a teacher, I often think about how stories are best told to kids. I understand that not every kid comes with the same background knowledge, and that some may need a bit of a catch-up. Kids these days, especially our youngest kiddos, might not know that there was a time when queer folks were denied basic rights, access to jobs, or the freedom to marry who we loved. The wording in the story is vague, and a child who doesn’t already understand the struggle wouldn’t understand this book. A sentence or two explaining the situation for the queer community at the time would help kids understand why Harvey Milk was a visionary and why the flag is so important.
If this book was written to educate kids about the struggle our community went through and continues to go through, let’s not water down our struggle in such a way that everything is sanitized! For example, the illustration of the White House illuminated by colored light says nothing about how we won the right to marry that day. Even young kids can handle hard truths if told with age-appropriate language. I can understand wanting to make this book accessible to a broad audience, but the real story is lost by over-simplifying our issues.
I’d have liked to see more (well, any, really) racial diversity in the illustrations as well. The crowd scenes are overwhelmingly white. While I could pick out some disabled and gender variant folks, I saw perhaps two black people in the illustration of a protest that took place in California, the most racially diverse state in the country. Later, there is a two-page spread with 12 people—eight of whom are white, eight of whom are men. Four black people. No Asian or Latinx people at all, despite the fact that there were Latinx and Asian men working closely with Harvey Milk’s campaigns. White cisgender men are historically over-represented in LGBTQ media coverage, and I wish this book moved away from that.
Overall, I think this book would be a fantastic component to a longer lesson about the continuing fight for queer and trans rights, but it doesn’t work as a standalone. For the most part, the book provides biographical information on both Milk and Gilbert Baker (who created the first rainbow Pride flag) along with some resources for learning more. It is a great addition to anyone’s library, but it needs other books to prop it up.
This book has gotten rave reviews from nearly every major book website and literary organization in the country, including LGBTQ news outlets. They point out that it was a very long time coming and that our children will finally be introduced to an important part of our country’s history. They aren’t wrong in this; it is a beautiful, important book. I just wish it showed what our community really looks like.
Teresa Kane is a teacher and writer living in Portland, OR. Her writing often focuses on the intersections of her queer and Muslim identities. She has degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University and studied American Sign Language at Gallaudet University. She is passionate about art, feminism, interfaith dialogue, and correct grammar usage.