A is Actually for Activist

From all of us looking for activist books for our babes, thank you Innosanto Nagara!

A is for activist is a recently self-published ABC board book by Nagara who is both the writer and illustrator. He is a founding member of Design Action Collective, a worker-owned cooperative design studio in Oakland.
Here’s an ABC book where the letter “X” doesn’t fall back on those tired old images. Rather, Nagara draws on its power:

               X is for Malcolm.
               Malcolm X.
               History’s lessons 
               can be complex.
               Remember Parks.
               Remember King.
               Remember Malcolm.
               And let freedom ring!

And that’s just one letter!  All 26 letters have tight little narrative structures that flow seamlessly from bright, vibrant illustrations. Democracy… equal rights… justice… diversity…  Nagara packs so much into this small book.

I recently learned about A is for activist from a friend who described her favorite image. It’s the “R” page, a quiet but fierce candlelight vigil that stretches far into the horizon.

Where else – but in a children’s picture book – do we get to see Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau at the same march? (Check out the illustration’s map on the book website for a helpful who’s who.)

Activists from throughout history stand beneath this text:

“Radical Reds!” the headlines said.
“Ruinois Rioters!” the Rumors spread.
“Rabble Rousing Riff Raff…”

Intense, right? It’s a stunning spread.

So will a young child be able to digest all of this?

Nagara very skillfully speaks to the very young directly. Here’s an example from the “T” page where tulips, a tiger, and a butterfly stretch on the page:

               T is for Trans.
               Tulips, Tassels, Tigers.
               Tractors and Tiaras.
               Trust in the True:
               The he she they that is you!

What a fabulously child-focused way to gently deliver a message about identity.

Also, a curious black cat makes an appearance throughout the book, so young kids can play the game of finding the animal on each page (for example, next to the Zapatista on the Z page).

Surely some of the topics will go over a young child’s head, particularly one in the ABC board book stage.  But this is a book that will still be relevant for many years beyond; it has layers.

Moreover, what Nagara so importantly does is not wait until the ABC book stage is over to begin a conversation about “Actively Answering A call to Action” and all that comes after. 

For that, I’m grateful.

Infinity and Social Change

A few months ago my four year old began to pull me into some *deep* discussions about the biggest possible number (Is infinity bigger than a bazillion?). Surely, I thought, there must be a picture book that can help us… But my web searches turned up empty.

So I was thrilled to read a recent blog post by Kate Hosford, author of the new picture book, Infinity and Me, which focuses precisely on this topic. My daughter and I immediately got our hands on a copy.

Infinity and Mefollows a girl’s exploration of infinity. While firmly rooted on the ground in her new red shoes, Uma asks those around her- her friends, her grandma, the school lunchroom cook, her music teacher- what infinity means to each of them.

In response, the characters offer reflections that take us far outside the vocabulary of numbers and equations: a family that continues through generations, a noodle that can always be cut smaller, an endless circle of music. After listening to everyone else and mulling over some of her infinite questions, Uma defines infinity for herself. She recognizes her love for her grandma is “as big as infinity.”

Gabi Swiatkowska’s illustrations are floating and lovely. My daughter and I were very satisfied.

Since I’ve set out in this blog to focus on picture books that explore social change, the topic of infinity may seem a bit far afield.

Most of the social change picture books I’m reading hone in on a particular person or event, for example, Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson about the environmental leader Wangara Maathai (which I will discuss in a future post). Biographies can relay the qualities of an activist and how they persevere in the face of adversity. Historical events can teach us about where we’ve come from and how to identify important moments of struggle and change.

But social change activism is also about process, one that involves listening to and respecting multiple points of view. Teaching this process seems an important part of any childhood social change toolkit.

Hosford concludes her author’s note with the following: In this book, Uma listens to everyone else’s definition of infinity. Then she comes up with one that’s right for her. My challenge to you is to find your own way to imagine this idea. How many ways are there to imagine infinity? An infinite number. Just close the book and begin.

As I reflect on what really grabbed me about this book, I think it is this invitation which is modeled so wonderfully in the story. There are infinite definitions of social change, so activists listen, discuss, imagine, act… and then circle back through again.

This process can be hard. It involves uncertainty. We don’t know where we’ll end up.

But to talk about social change- like infinity- is to find ways to discuss an outcome that we can’t quite predict or imagine. And, like Uma, we need to learn to do this while still keeping our feet (or shiny red shoes) on the ground.