Stitch by Stitch: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt
by Rob Sanders
Illustrations by Jamey Christoph
Magination Press Children’s Books

Reviewed by Chael Needle

Stitch by Stitch: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt brilliantly introduces young readers (ages 4–8) to an activist and the reasons he created one of the most enduring tributes to individuals who have died from AIDS-related causes. We meet Cleve as a baby yet to be born, as his great-grandmother is sewing a quilt for him. Later, he remembers this warmth when the world withdraws its compassion. Homespun love transforms into friendship among “people on the fringes,” the bonds of community, and a passion for justice. Change for the better evolves stitch by stitch and page by page.

One of the strengths of the book is its ability to explain complex social and political contexts to emerging readers without turning its back on difficult moments. For example, the White Night Riots are deftly described in three brief sentences:

Then came the day when Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assasinated.
Cleve and his friends were angry. Sad. Hurt.
Their feelings came rumbling out on the streets.

Other writers might have shied away from the political context of the time and punishing emotions, like the feeling of abandonment and being judged, that people living with AIDS experienced, but not Sanders, who has previously written about peaceful protest, Harvey Milk, and Albert D.J. Cashier, a transgender Civil War soldier, among other subjects. The illustrations by Jamey Christoph complement this devotion to everyday outcasts caught up in a harsh world by depicting the characters with soft lines and gentle washes of color but rendering the emotions sharply. The images of the Quilt panels reflect the blue and white of the sky above; its other colors echo the world around these characters. Author and illustrator have previously combined their talents for Stonewall. A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution.

Sometimes, however, the book fumbles complexity. Throughout I wished that the book provided more specifics about HIV as a virus (though a glossary and timeline helps in this regard) and more clarification about the origin of AIDS and the “spread” of the disease. Stitch by Stitch gives the inaccurate impression that gay men in the U.S. were the origin of the disease and that the virus seemingly traveled outward from one locus.

Healthy young gay men began to be diagnosed with unusual symptoms…
The illness spread from one city to another.
From state to state.
From country to country….

It skates close to rehashing the Patient Zero myth. The Discussion Guide does make note that the myth is untrue but I am not clear why the book follows the predominant narrative of the time and effectively erases people who were not gay—people who identified as same-gender-loving, people of transgender experience, people who lived with hemophilia, people who used injection drugs, and so on. Cleve Jones as an activist has always focused on a range of social justice movements, so the book’s hyper-focus on gay men seems odd. The misstep mars the otherwise elegant writing, which makes good use of repetition to engage young readers in the very act of remembrance that is the subject of the book.

Overall, Stitch by Stitch echoes the steadfastness of Cleve Jones’ activism and the work of others like Joseph Durant and Gert McMullin. For every down, there is an up. For every problem, there can be a solution. The inner confidence of the book allows readers to trust in the capacity to transform the world in a positive way.

Chael Needle writes fiction and poetry when he is not editing. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.