Queer author hits home run with Glenn Burke picture book for kids

The cover of Phil Bildner's book, "Glenn Burke, Game Changer: The Man Who Invented the High Five."
The cover of Phil Bildner’s book, “Glenn Burke, Game Changer: The Man Who Invented the High Five.”
Photo Courtesy of Phil Bildner

Phil Bildner, a former New York City public school teacher turned children’s book author, blends storytelling with advocacy. His most recent title, “Glenn Burke, Game Changer: The Man Who Invented the High Five” (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers) a picture book richly illustrated by Daniel J. O’Brien, tells the true story of Glenn Burke, the first Major League Baseball player to come out as gay who started the high five.

Burke, a Black baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ‘70s, was out to most of his teammates. When he was traded to the Oakland Athletics, he faced harassment and discrimination before leaving the league altogether. But he didn’t leave his beloved sport, joining the San Francisco Gay Softball League and playing at the Gay Olympics where his team won gold. Burke died of AIDS-related complications in 1995 at the age of 42, but his legacy endured when the Oakland A’s held their first Pride Night that included a tribute to Burke in 2015. In 2022, the L.A. Dodgers, on their now annual Pride Night, held a tribute to Glenn Burke during a pregame ceremony. 

Bildner, the author of many picture books and middle-grade novels that not only entertain but champion inclusivity and social justice, has a long career working with children. He spent 11 years teaching in New York City’s public schools, starting in the West Farms and Tremont sections of the Bronx before moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

Phil Bildner.
Phil Bildner.Photo Courtesy of Phil Bildner

He’d always liked to write. “I just didn’t know I’d be able to make a living doing it,” he admitted, speaking to Gay City News by phone from his home in Newburgh, New York, where he lives with his husband, a rescue dog named Katniss and, keeping with “The Hunger Games” theme, two cats named Rue and Primrose. “So after teaching for a number of years, and getting several book contracts,” he continued, “I decided to leave the steady job and see if I could wing it and make it work as an author.” 

Bildner had just signed a multi-book deal “that was going to require a lot of writing,” he explained. “So it wasn’t like I was jumping off without a net — just without health insurance,” he joked. 

And for years he earned his living, writing and visiting schools. 

“I used to visit dozens and dozens of schools every year all across the country,” he recounted on a more serious note. “Now I’m lucky if I get to do four or five school visits an entire year because, you know, queer authors — or openly queer authors who speak their mind or write about people who shouldn’t be erased — they have a difficult time getting into schools these days.”

He first sensed the coming backlash in 2015. “I used to visit a school district in Texas every year, and at one of the visits I talked about a book that featured a trans character, and after that I was banned from the district.”

That event marked a significant realization for Bildner, signaling the rise of our current era fraught with book bans and challenges for marginalized voices in children’s literature. Undeterred, Bildner embarked on a dual role as an author and entrepreneur, founding the author booking agency The Author Village in 2017.  

We represent about 80 to 90 authors, educators, and librarians, and we book them into schools, conferences, festivals, libraries, all around the country and around the world. So we deal with the culture war and the politics of hate and censorship and book banning pretty much on a daily basis.” 

Through this venture, Bildner has found himself on the front lines, combating censorship and advocating for inclusivity. “If someone had told me when we started this seven years ago that this was going to be my job description,” his voice trailed off before it came back stronger. “Fortunately, I’m an author. So I understand the business that way. And I’m a former teacher, and so I understand the business that way, too. And from my past life in the 1990s, I also used to be an attorney. So this was like a ready-made job for me. I understand all aspects of it.”

The story about Glenn Burke had its own challenges. First pitched as a picture book, Bildner’s editor felt it might work better as a middle-grade novel.

“We started spit-balling ideas,” Bildner recalled. “And he was, like, ‘Would you be willing to write it.’ And I’m, like, ‘I’d be willing to write it if you’d be willing to buy it.’ I’m not going to write a book that’s just going to get rejected. So I wrote a couple sample chapters and outlined the entire book and the novel was purchased based on the sample and the outline.”

That book, “A High Five for Glenn Burke,” came out in 2020. And when the book did well, Bildner told his agent, “Let’s resubmit the picture book; let’s see what they say.”

The editor who had initially rejected the picture book idea bought it on re-submission. “It’s the same editor I’ve worked with on my middle grade series. ‘Glenn Burke, Game Changer’ is the sixth book I’ve done with him. I’m looking at my shelf right now to make sure I got that right. Yeah, that’s correct.”

When the book came out in late February 2024, everyone thought Bildner had written it during the pandemic lockdown. “I’m like, no, I wrote this book seven or eight years ago. Obviously, I had to do revisions and update it, but the core of it, the bones, were written years ago. And I love sharing that with students and kids — knowing that sometimes things really do need to marinate. Things take time. Sometimes what you start out with looks nothing like what you end up with. Or how you get from point A to point Z is sometimes a very circuitous route.” 

Looking ahead, Bildner says he’s working on what he’s calling a “hybrid book,” part novel, part graphic novel. “I wouldn’t do the graphic novel portion of it, but it’s a book aimed at upper middle-grade and tweenagers. Whether or not it ever sees the light of day, who knows, but it allows me to use the creative side of my brain as opposed to just the business side that I’m using for Author Village.

Asked about the story, he would say only that it takes place over the course of a single day, though he drove home the point that the book “is definitely queer themed.”