Explaining activism to children would likely leave most parents stuck sounding out the first “Ah”. The same cannot be said for author and illustrator Innosanto Nagara, who has skilfully navigated the idea in just 26 letters.
Innosanto Nagara didn’t grow up planning to be a children’s author. “I got into it because I wanted to bring my child up on stories of resistance and resilience that were true to the world we live in today.”
“Today, our kids grow up bombarded by messages designed to sell products, news that lacks context, and social media that is curated by computer algorithms to narrower and narrower perspectives. Books are, by their nature, a commitment. If we don’t consciously make that commitment to nurturing a more thoughtful and “holistic” narrative, and interacting with our children around ideas, we are leaving them in the hands of the least scrupulous amongst us”, said Innosanto.
His first book A is for Activist has a backbone, not just a spine. It’s part-abecedarium and part-Where’s Wally (cat edition)? It’s also a how-to guide to bringing up brave, engaged youngsters.
Case in point: the letter D reads: “Little d democracy. More than voting, you’ll agree. Dictators detest it. Donkeys don’t get it. But you and me? We demand equality!”
“It’s funny that you mention “little d democracy”, said Innosanto, when asked if youngsters might find some of the topics in his book tricky to grasp. “That’s actually one of the pages that kids are most attracted to. In parts, of course, because of the elephant and donkey on the page, but also because it depicts conflict, as well as the catchy alliteration.
“It was one of the first pages my own son had memorised and would say along with me, yelling out ‘equality!’ at the end for the line ‘But you and me? We Demand equality!’ When he was old enough to ask what democracy meant (perhaps in response to one of us telling him that this family is not, in fact, a democracy) we talked about how we make decisions.
“It was great, because those were the conversations we had when he was three or four, but then this last year he was six and we were able to talk about the US elections and what they mean. Not just in terms of the mechanics of who wins or loses, but in terms of what the results mean for us and what we’re going to do between elections, given the outcome.
“Every kid is different and I don’t have a prescription for how to explain every concept in my books to every kid. But as with anything, these are conversation starters. When they have questions, we do our best to find ways to talk with them about it. Sometimes they don’t get it the first time. But it’s about laying foundations,” he explained.
The North Oakland-based cohousing community where Innosanto lives provided him with plenty of practice. His son was the youngest of eight children to be born into the community – made up of five families – so he read “a lot of bedtime books” before writing his own.
“To me, children’s books are a very intimate experience. I write them to be experienced by a child or a family at story time, reading together before bed or when a child is alone and in their head. So my primary responsibility is to the child’s experience, which means it absolutely has to be enjoyable, enchanting, and engrossing. And I also want the books to be enjoyable for the adults who are likely to be reading them with children – particularly the board books, which are geared to an audience who are not of reading age.”
A is for Activist has so far been joined by two more: Counting on Community (numeracy book meets call to urban farming, music making and more) and My Night at the Planetarium (a true tale of a brave play, told through the eyes of Innosanto). Though the framework for all Innosanto’s works is the language, stories and values of social change, he’s quick to highlight that these are not textbooks. Information comes secondary to captivating audiences.
“I’d have to say that my original inspiration was my son. But I have continued on this path because I believe these are books that are needed,” said Innosanto.
“The common theme in my books is that they are about ‘agency’. The examples may be specific to particular times and places in history, but the themes are meant to be universal. Is a child in the UK in 2017 going to have a specific interest in what happened in Indonesia in 1977? I would not be surprised if the answer was no. But is a child’s eye view of participating in a play that angered a dictator perhaps a story worth listening to? In Trump’s America, one can imagine it to be so.”
From Lush UK’s Activist Toolkit