Friday, June 19, 2020

Book Review | Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution.

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I found this book entirely by accident but am glad I did. I was searching for more books about Stonewall to read and use for my June podcast and this one came up so I requested it from the library, not really paying attention to the fact it was actually a children's book. Turns out, it is exactly what I was looking for without even knowing it at the time.

I love the fact that the story of Stonewall is told from the point of view of the building itself. The story begins in Greenwich Village of the 1840s, where men in top hats and horse-drawn wagons grace the pages. The building we know today was once two buildings, built for the affluent citizens of NYC to board their horses. Slowly Greenwich Village changed, and we see wealthier residents move away. The Village becomes a place for immigrants to settle, who had made long and tiring trips, from all over the world. Into the twentieth century the Village continues to evolve as cars take over as the new mode of transportation. Art galleries, theatres, bakeries, restaurants all find a home there and in 1930 those two long-ago stables have become one building that housed a restaurant named Bonnie's Stone Wall.

At this point in the story, long before Stonewall became Stonewall, the theme has not changed. Greenwich Village remains a place the Inn describes as being welcoming to all. By the time the building becomes a restaurant, the Inn tells us, "Celebrities, artisans, tourists, and local residents lunched at our tables, shoulder to shoulder" and "Greenwich Village was a place where you could be yourself, and where being different was welcomes and respected."

The Stonewall brings us into the 50s next, telling the reader of the Jazz musicians, poets, artists. Also, however, the Stonewall makes a point to say, "Leading up to the 60s, our neighborhood welcomed gays and lesbians - men who loved men, and women who loved women. We were a home for people who were told that they didn't fit in or belong."

Finally we arrive in 1967, when the Stonewall Inn opened its doors as a gay bar/dance club and welcomed people from all walks of life. I especially appreciate the illustrations on these two pages, and the diversity shown specifically here, which is definitely lacking on other pages (which I will address further in a moment). It can never be overstated how critical POC, especially trans POC, were to the uprising itself, so to see that diversity if crucial. "Women and men, young and old, teenagers, transgender people, drag queens, veterans, businesspeople, students, people of different colors, religions, and cultures, gathered, chatted, laughed, and danced under our roof."

The book does not shy away from the ugliness directed at those who frequented the bar, but it does clean it up a bit for the intended audience and I think this is important also. For many children this may be their first time learning about Stonewall, or the LGBTQIA+ community in general, and I think the author handles this in an age-appropriate way, saying that there were people who were not accepting of the community, stating that you could be arrested, fired, and/or kicked out of your home. The Stonewall goes on to talk about the constant police raids, showing citizens in an arrest wagon. Even so, says the Inn, the doors were kept open night after night for the community to return to.

Then suddenly here we are, at that fateful night, June 28th, 1969. Officers storm into the bar, demanding IDs and lining up club-goers, detaining and arresting whoever they wanted to. Unlike earlier raids, however, this time those who were let go did not actually leave. They did not fade away into the night but stood defiantly outside, pent-up anger seething through the crowd. It was unleashed when a woman being arrested yelled to the crowd, "Why don't you do something?"

So the crowd did. The Stonewall describes how the crowd unleashed that rage, yelling and screaming, moving back toward the bar. With this, the police barricaded themselves inside the very building they had just raided, calling for help in the form of the riot police. Windows were shattered, fires were lit, but still the rage swept through the crowd. For several days and nights, the Stonewall tells us, the uprising continued.

The following year what will become known as the first Pride Parade happens on the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. First there were hundreds who marched, but then all of those people AND their friends and families joined. The parade wove its way through the streets of NYC. They were not going to hide anymore.

Then the Stonewall Inn  brings us to the present day, and seems to shine so brightly, proclaiming that some things have changed since that night, and the laws of this country have changed as well. It makes reference to June being Pride month, and that there is still a long way to go toward full equality. The story ends with, "It all began one night here at the Stonewall Inn, when two old horse stables became part of history."

So, first, I loved this book. It is not perfect, but it is not problematic when you look at the whole picture. The illustrations are beautiful in that they are well-done and there truly is some great diversity on the pages. However, this was not consistent. Too often the crowds were very white, and as I mentioned above, POCs CAN NOT be overlooked in this movement. That is my only real issue with the book, because even when the pictures were lacking, the text was definitely inclusive in at least stating that people of all colors, religions, and cultures were welcome. This is actually stated twice, in the quote I gave earlier, then again when describing the first anniversary celebration. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, so that is what makes the whitewashing all the more troubling. White dudes did not run everything, so let's please have visual representations of everyone.

The illustrations were strong, however, in their ability to evoke a variety of emotions. It was easy to feel the emotions of that night especially, the anger and fear that people felt as they decided this would be the night where they said no more to acquiescing and disappearing into the darkness. The same is true throughout the entire book, however, and the illustrator's play with dark and light colors really captured each feeling splendidly.

When looking over other reviews, I noticed quite a few people were frustrated by the language used, mainly referring to the club-goers as gay or lesbian. Transgender was used, but was not defined until the glossary section. I think it is important to remember that in the late 60s there was not have this massive list of acronyms that we have today that more accurately describe the LGBTQIA+ Community. That's why at the time it was called the 'Gay Rights Movement', which the book refers to, with an asterisk stating it is now referred to as the 'LGBTQ+ Rights Movement'. I think it makes sense that gay and lesbian were the primary words used within the text, as that gave it more historical accuracy. Using terms that are common today in a book describing an event and movement in the 1960s would feel out of place.

I appreciate the fact that the night of June 28th itself was described in an age-appropriate way. While people do need to understand the violence that took place, that is not necessarily true for the age group, which to me feels like K-2nd grade. (I might be off with this though, considering I have an upcoming second grader who has been reading at a 4th/5th grade reading level for a while.) I don't feel like this was sanitizing or cleaning anything up to make it pretty, because again I come back to illustrations and how well they evoke the same emotions one would feel if the author had described in more graphic terms some of the events that night.

At the end of the story, there are some helpful extras included. First there is a black and white photo of the exterior of the Stonewall Inn that year, accompanied by a brief history. It is here that the author mentions the use of the word transgender and how it is much more common today than it was in the 60s. He adds, "...transgender individuals were instrumental in the Uprising, with some historians saying that trans women of color led it." That's pretty accurate and it would have been helpful if this would have been reflected more clearly in the artwork. The two pages following include more black and white photos of that night and the ensuing years. I was glad to see a photo of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Ray Rivera included. Still beyond that there is a brief interview with Martin Boyce, and LGBTQ+ activist who was at the Stonewall Inn that night. Finally there is a glossary and websites and books listed for further reading, as well as the Making Gay History podcast.

Overall, I loved this book and think it is a great introduction to learning about this rights movement. I plan to read it to Eleanor to give her a better understanding as well. We have had conversations in the past, how anyone can love anyone else they choose (thought I admit I have so far stuck to binary language because she is six; a gender spectrum will be hard to grasp at her age), and it is not something out of the ordinary for her to see two men or two women holding hands. I have also begun discussing what transgender means and wouldn't you know, when I explained the meaning her reaction was, "Huh, okay." If kids can get there that easily, it should would be nice if more adults followed suit.

Highly recommended.


  1. This book sounds like everything I could want a book on the topic to be! I'm in love with the idea of it being told from the perspective of the building itself. Eleanor sounds wise beyond her years, and I'm glad to see that the future generation will have a better take on all of this than the current on.

    1. I keep reading through it, I really loved it. I think it was very clever to tell the story from the perspective of the for so many reasons. Not only did we get to see that the Village was welcoming to all for decades and decades, we also got to see the Uprising through the eyes of 'someone' who was actually there. I think it would not have worked as well for me if it was told through the eyes of a fictional character. Then people would speculate who the character was based on, and that could cause problems. It is truly a beautiful book and I am so glad I found it.

  2. This sounds like a valuable resource for children and adults alike.

    1. Very much so! I will be buying a copy for Eleanor to keep. It is a beautiful book.


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