By Jennifer Modenessi
OAKLAND — It was while thumbing through children’s books with his young son, Arief, that Innosanto Nagara began thinking about penning a work of his own.
“We’d been reading a lot of books,” recalled the Oakland resident, sitting in a meeting room at Design Action Collective, the worker-owned graphic design firm he helped found. “I had started having an inkling of an idea that it would be fun to have something that reflected our values.”
A short time later, Nagara’s idea blossomed into “A is for Activist,” a colorful 32-page board book for children ages 0-3 that uses the ABC format to illustrate a world of peaceful protests, marching families and candlelight vigils attended by revolutionary heroes.
The book’s celebration of everything from healthy food to feminism to gay rights resonated with readers hungry for something different.
—‰’A is for Activist’ and ‘Counting on Community’ (Nagara’s new book) give voice to many of us who don’t feel reflected by traditional children’s books,” said Maya Gonzalez, a San Francisco-based award-winning children’s book author, artist and activist.
After an initial printing of 3,000 self-published copies through Kickstarter, “A is for Activist” was picked up by New York-based Seven Stories Press — whose roster includes works by authors Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy — and published under its children’s book imprint, Triangle Square.
Now in its seventh printing, the book has sold 37,000 copies and topped children’s books bestsellers lists at independent bookstores across the country.
It’s also been lauded by fellow activists, musicians and writers, including bestselling author Julia Alvarez, who called it “a sassy and heartwarming board book to teach our children the alphabet of humane values.”
Fast forward three years, and the 45-year-old graphic designer has just released his second book, “Counting on Community,” which paints a portrait of children playing music, planting seeds and going about their daily business, surrounded by a diverse group of neighbors, family and friends.
For Nagara, the book is about much more than counting.
“It’s about relationships and our relationship to each other and our community,” he said.
It mirrors the life the self-described activist has created for himself since immigrating to the United States from Indonesia as a college student pursuing a zoology degree.
“I sort of live in a world of people who are involved in trying to do meaningful work,” Nagara said.
That world includes his wife, Kristi Laughlin, a director at a faith-based Oakland nonprofit whom he met while involved in activist and antiwar work at UC Davis.
It includes his co-housing community roommates who work for various Bay Area social justice organizations, and his co-workers at Design Action, who create graphics for various nonprofits and social change groups.
And it includes his father, Ikranagara, a dissident Indonesian poet-playwright, and mother Kay, an American linguist and civil rights and antiwar activist, who ended up in Indonesia in the 1970s, just like President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham.
Along with cultivating his artistic leanings toward drawing and painting, Nagara’s parents helped nurture his activist roots.
But he wasn’t doing much organizing during his adolescence in Indonesia. Political protest during former President Suharto’s iron-fisted rule was risky, and even his father — a seasoned dissident — was toeing the line. Nagara plans to tell his father’s story in a picture book focusing on a play that got his dad into some trouble with the Suharto regime.
Nagara found plenty of opportunities to speak out, however, after moving to the United States. His career also took an unexpected turn when he switched gears and moved to San Francisco for freelance graphic design work, eventually ending up at Inkworks Press, a print shop specializing in social justice work, of which Nagara’s Design Action Collective is a spinoff.
Lincoln Cushing, a Berkeley-based political poster archivist, curator and graphic artist at Inkworks, praised Design Action’s success and Nagara’s work as a children’s book author.
—‰’A is for Activist’ steps somewhat outside the activist art sphere in that the message is aimed at children, not just including them in imagery for a broader audience,” Cushing said.
Despite the success of his Kickstarter-funded first book, the author remains grounded and hard at work. He recently illustrated a booklet accompanying a CD of classic Indonesian children’s songs performed by his brother, Biko, and Suzie “Ujie” Herwati, a childhood friend, and he’s working on the new project.
Nagara is also busy getting the word out about his latest book.
“Whereas ‘A is for Activist’ is about issues, ‘Counting on Community’ is sort of about how we live. Hopefully, (children and their parents) will enjoy that as well.”
Contact Jennifer Modenessi at 925-943-8378 or at Twitter.com/jmodenessi.
AGE: 45HOMETOWN: Oakland
QUOTE: “I knew there would be things in ‘A is for Activist’ that weren’t for everybody. I decided when I wrote it that I wasn’t going to try to water it down in order to make it more popular.”