Seated nearby, Eilon Shomron-Atar, a psychoanalyst, was straining to filter out the distractions of some dozen pint-size listeners gurgling and spinning like jacks all around him.
Bella, his 2-year-old, sat at his knee as Tehilah Eisenstadt, a childhood educator and activist, read to the group from “Emma and the Whale,” which touches on themes of empathy and wildlife preservation.
Such messages matter, Mr. Shomron-Atar said, but so do values like “food justice” or, as he explained, “learning about eating ethically, buying local, organic and pain-free and knowing where your dinner comes from.” They are concerns embraced by the authors of board books like “V Is for Vegan” and “Vegan Is Love.”
Those books and their reform-minded kin have descended like crickets on indie stores and megachains, their authors, by turns upbeat or admonitory, addressing themes of immigration, climate change, racial and ethnic diversity, feminism and gender identification, all gathered under the rubric of social justice.
To booksellers and publishers, such topics are especially timely. “Since the election, there has been a greater sense of urgency about these issues,” said Annie Hedrick, an owner of Book Culture. “Parents in our area are trying to find ways to take them up with their kids.”
Board books and picture books are proving a popular avenue. “Five or six years ago, ‘A Is for Activist’ would not have been published,” said Ken Geist, publisher and editorial director for picture books at Scholastic. “I don’t think the trend was mainstream at that point.”
Since its release in 2013 by Seven Stories Press, “A Is for Activist,” by Innosanto Nagara, has become a children’s best-seller, with 125,000 copies in print, according to the publisher. Arguably the book’s unexpected success has given rise to a flurry of such child-friendly primers — among them, “My Night in the Planetarium,” also by Mr. Nagara, which is in part about speaking out against oppression. These and similar offerings seek to captivate a generation still too young and unformed to have acquired a name.
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Social activist Innosanto Nagara wanted to find a fun book to read to his 2-year-old son that also talked about the importance of social justice.
He wasn’t looking for the typical fiction written for children, instead, he was looking for unique narratives — by writers of color and/or authors who can speak about social issues through their own experiences.
Nagara couldn’t find any. So he wrote one.
“Parents and teachers are realizing that what students read and learn affects how they see the world.” said Deborah Menkart, Executive Director for Teaching for Change, an organization that puts together social justice reading lists to inspire children throughout the summer.
“Give kids credit,” says Stan Yogi, one of the authors on our list. “They have an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Being able to draw on that innate sense of justice through relatable stories is so important.”
Not all parents have the time to do what Innosanto Nagara did.
For those who can’t, we’ve compiled a list — with help from Teaching for Change — of books that frame big issues through a lens children can understand.
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
By Britni de la Cretaz
Innosanto Nagara is a graphic designer and children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Oakland, Calif. His first two books, “ ‘A’ is for Activist” and “Counting on Community” were geared toward the 3-and-under crowd. His newest book, “My Night in the Planetarium,” targets an elementary school-age audience with a true story from Nagara’s childhood in Indonesia. [Answers edited for length and clarity.]
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.”