Grooming Your Future Activist
A growing segment of children’s media has a progressive bent, and much of it is locally produced.
By Corey Hill
Children’s entertainment comes with no shortage of messages: disobedient princesses learning to obey their parents; giant red dogs urging teamwork; purple dinosaurs imparting the wisdom of just being yourself. But with a few exceptions, kids’ books, movies, and music highlight only a narrow range of voices and viewpoints. Most are an implicit endorsement of stratified wealth. (After all, what are princes and princesses if not the embodiment of entitlement?) There’s an acute shortage of voices from queer folks and people of color. Many have outmoded gender norms.
Radical parents looking for something to read to their sprouting 99 Percenters need not despair. Children’s media with a progressive bent does exist, the offerings are expanding, and a great deal of this tyke-targeted agitprop is, not surprisingly, produced right here in the Bay Area.
The Bay Area has long been at the forefront of activism in the United States, whether that means advocating for gay rights or recognizing the injustice of apartheid. This area is also home to a large number of creative types, like writers and illustrators. If you were to make a Venn diagram of the two groups, there would be a large overlap in the center representing creative types who are also progressives. As it turns out, the folks in the overlap are more than happy to turn their attention to a young audience.
Case in point: A is for Activist, an ABC book self-published by Oakland-based graphic designer Innosanto Nagara. Released in November, the tot tome touches on the Occupy movement, LGBTQ rights, union power, and Malcolm X. Sure, this isn’t the first time a progressive message has made its way into material aimed at little ones. Dr. Suess’ The Butter Battle offers commentary on the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, published in 2000, provides a child-sized serving of workers’ rights education. The difference between those works and A is for Activist is that the latter doesn’t rely on allegory. It is almost certainly the first children’s book to end with “Z for Zapatista,” and no interpretation is necessary for the rhymes that accompany the letter F: “A Feminist Fights for Fundamental Rights/Choice in Our Future/Fairness in Our Pay/The Freedom to Flourish in each and every way.”
“I wanted to write a book that had values and issues that I cared about,” said Nagara. “It’s the stuff that I think is interesting and fun. Activist issues and values are my issues and values, but there wasn’t a book that I could find that was specifically about it.”
Nagara went the labor-intensive self-publishing route, but many authors have found a local ally in Children’s Book Press. The San Francisco publishing company has been churning out agitprop for the onesie crowd for more than three decades, and it was the first publisher in the country to focus on marginalized voices from the Latino, African-American, Asian-American, Pacific-Islander, and Native-American communities. Diversification, to make an obvious point, is sorely needed in popular culture. For example, Latinos make up less than 5 percent of characters represented in the media, according to studies by UCLA and Media Matters, despite representing nearly 17 percent of the US population.
Books like Birthday in the Barrio, Quinito’s Neighborhood, and Lakas and the Manilatown Fish provide perspectives that often get short shrift. Local author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez, author of My Colors, My World and I Know the River Loves Me, has produced numerous books for Children’s Book Press, but she still feels one group is in need of greater representation.
“I felt, as a queer, a great desire to be of service to my community,” Gonzalez said. “And one of our most disenfranchised communities are our transgender youth.”
Gonzalez’ Gender Now, first released in 2010, was the first children’s book to explore transgender topics. The book touches on cultural norms on gender from around the globe, provides examples of prominent historical trans figures, and includes activities explaining the difference between gender and sex — all in a crayon-friendly format. Gonzalez is currently developing The Gender Team, a graphic novel about six superheroes exploring gender.
Messages about being yourself is standard kids’ trope across the board, but Gender Now and The Gender Team present a radical departure from mainstream offerings. Disney certainly embraces a limited version of this ethos, but it will probably be some time before a transgender princess shows up on toy store shelves.
In the music department, kids have mostly been limited to a chorus of eight-year-olds singing pop hits. (The Kidz Bop franchise has released 22 albums in 11 years.) Michael Franti’s tunes provide a welcome respite.
“Most of my audience today, a lot of them have kids who are preschoolers,” said Franti, frontman of the politically charged local band Spearhead. “So they’re always asking me to do shows that are all-ages. So now, almost every show has been all-ages. Before every show, we’ve made time so that at sound check … parents can come up onstage and bring their kids.”
The inclusivity of the stage show is part of a broader emphasis on Franti’s part to engage young people. He’s written two children’s books in the last five years: What I Be, which emphasizes tolerance and self-expression, and Where In the World Is Away?, an exploration of sustainability and recycling. “As an adult, I thought it would be great if kids could have an understanding of that from the time of early childhood, an awareness that what each of us does impacts the planet,” Franti said.
Another local company that’s imparting a progressive message on young minds — in this case using all three platforms of music, books, and video — is Balance Edutainment. The Oakland-based company is hoping that its multimedia storytelling series Pacha’s Pajamas will be the next Dora the Explorer — albeit Dora with a more radical edge.
Pacha’s Pajamas tells the story of a young girl exploring her dreams of advocating for natural ecosystems. Although many components of the multimedia project are still in development, Balance has released the first book in the series and a soundtrack featuring big names like environmentalist and public radio host Majora Carter, actor Cheech Marin, and rappers Lyrics Born and Mos Def.
“We’re out to inspire children to be heroes for the planet, to uplift and inspire children, and [for] youth to be voices for change in the world,” said Aaron Ableman, co-founder of Balance Edutainment. “Pacha’s is the culmination of the last ten to twelve years of work, and really exploring the role of popular media.”
Balance Edutainment has also made Pacha’s Pajamas content available for crowdsourcing. Oakland-based Destiny Arts Center developed a play that shined a spotlight on the enduring environmental justice concerns surrounding asthma. It was performed at La Peña Cultural Center in May.
What separates Pacha’s Pajamas from the countless other platforms doling out platitudes on being green is that it embraces an approach to the natural world that is divergent from the dominant Western viewpoint. Telling kids to recycle is one thing; telling kids that rivers should have legal rights, well, that’s radical.
The Bay Area is certainly a good place to be a changemaker. And that doesn’t have to end when parents unwrap the Baby Bjorn. “The Bay Area has a history of progressivism and radical politics,” said Franti. “I think that people from my generation, as we’ve grown older and started families, we don’t want to leave those things behind. A lot of us, when we were young, we wanted to be on the frontlines of protest and activism. But now, a lot of us have a baby strapped to the front, and it’s not always appropriate to go up against a police shield. So now, we’re finding new ways to do it, new ways to communicate, new ways to make the education of our kids be in line with the beliefs that we have.”