The Harvey Milk Story (2001), written by Kari Krakow and illustrated by David Gardner, is a serviceable biography of one of the first openly gay US politicians. Krakow chronologizes Milk’s life from birth to assassination. Gardner’s realistic images provide Milk with humanizing depth by showing his nuanced emotions throughout his life.
Readers are introduced to Milk as an adored baby, extroverted child, popular teen, and brave man. Because Krakow covered so much, years go by with the turn of a page. The story doesn’t quite cohere around an organizing theme or motif. On occasion, awkward lines that attempt to historicize Milk end up detracting from the story. For instance, Krakow writes: “Like so many people of his time, he was afraid of what would happen to him if others knew he was gay.” Not only does this create a problematic binary between the closeted past and the open present, it simplifies what was likely a very complex subjective experience of identity and society.
Krakow throws random facts into the story, for example, describing a child’s fundraising efforts on Milk’s behalf when he ran for Supervisor. But she leaves out important details, like Milk’s relationship with his family after he moved to the Castro District in San Francisco and became an out political figure. In fact, Milk’s political and activist work are rushed through.
This isn’t a must have in 2019, but in 2001 it was. We still need far more non-fiction, including biographies, that acknowledge the existence of LGBT histories. This was a commendable attempt to render Harvey Milk’s story accessible to young readers, but it ended up saying both too much and not enough.
This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The New Queer Children’s Literature: Exploring the Principles and Politics of LGBTQ* Children’s Picture Books, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ* content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!