There’s always a too small town and a white boy with big dreams and unknown potential. Or at least that appears to be how the small, but steadily growing field of LGBTQ+ nonfiction picture books is developing. Harvey Milk and Gilbert Baker had their 15 minutes of picture book fame, now it’s Mayor Pete’s turn.
Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg (2020), written by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Levi Hastings, is a detail rich biography that follows the recent presidential hopeful from his birth in South Bend, Indiana through his early education, when his interest in service and power emerged, to his candidacy in the 2020 presidential election. Hastings’ illustrations capture the multiple realities of Buttigieg’s hometown, particularly the warmth of nature, vibrancy of intellectual life, and fading remnants of its industrial heyday.
The story follows Buttigieg to Harvard, Tunis, and Chicago as readers are introduced to him as an intellectual with a heart and head for service. Eventually, Buttigieg returns home, to South Bend, to run for office.
First, Buttigieg runs for Indiana state treasurer, and loses. Next, he runs for South Bend mayor, and wins. But, Buttigieg, a member of the Navy reserves, is soon deployed to Afghanistan and he leaves his hometown, again.
Upon his safe return, Buttigieg begins a reelection campaign. Before the election, he writes a letter to a newspaper sharing that he is gay. Although it is noted that some are concerned his sexuality will keep him from being reelected, Sanders doesn’t keep readers waiting long to learn that Buttigieg has won.
Some time after his newest victory, Buttigieg meets and married a teacher named Chasten Glezman. Hastings catches the couple’s wedding day kiss, enveloping the men in white and framing them with clapping and smiling guests.
The story ends with an announcement of Buttigieg’s run for president.
In paratext, Buttigieg is described as a gay man, millennial, and veteran. It is noted that he is the first to inhabit these identities while running for president.
Sanders does a good job describing a man who has indeed devoted his life to service. I’m not sure how I feel about Buttigieg’s sexuality being introduced through the deliberate and public act of self-disclosure. It adds to the overall text reading like a list of accomplishments. Community and relationships are downplayed, although Buttigieg is shown and described with his parents and, later, with his husband. He is never fully humanized, but perhaps he doesn’t need to be. The picture book does the work of informing readers quite well.
It is worth noting that gay white men dominate the small field of LGBTQ+ picture book biographies. It’s too soon to predict how the field will develop, especially if the authorship of texts begins to expand, but, as of now, two writers, Rob Sanders and Gayle Pitman, are shaping the nascent field. We certainly need more biographies in general, and more that explore black and brown lives especially.