Elle Interviews Innosanto Nagara


As a parent in Portland, Oregon, I’m constantly astounded at how many clever ways that children’s food, clothing and events can be marketed to hipster parents. There are baby boutiques like Treehouse or BeanSprout, children’s musicians like Mr. Ben and Talullah’s Daddy, kid’s coffeeshops like POA or Cafe Au Play. And have you seen some of the clothing? Knit scarves that look like faux-beards, bicycle helmets with fuzzy ears. Fake mustaches and ironically ugly pretend glasses. These innocuous novelties are worth a chuckle. And yet, it was one book in particular, that was worthy of purchase, two years ago. My daughter is a toddler and yet she delighted in words like, "J is for Justice! Yay for Justice! Jia-Jing Jiang. Juanita. Jamal. Justice for Janitors, Justicia for all!"

Tongue twisters sure sound nice, and yet some of the messages on the thick, bright pages of "A is for Activist!" actually triggered tears.

"F is for Feminist
For Fairness in our pay.
For Freedom to Flourish
And choose our own way."

I was inspired that a book like this existed, and I was thrilled that a person out there was offering these messages of passion for a new generation. And so, we found him. Here to talk on ethical children’s art, I met with Innosanto Nagara.

Who are you?

I’m a social justice activist and a graphic designer in Oakland, and founding member of Design Action Collective. I was born and raised in Indonesia and came to the US to study zoology. 27 years later I’m still here. My partner is an interfaith organizer who works on labor and immigrant rights issues. I work in a worker co-op. We live in a co-housing community. And I train martial arts at a collectively run dojo. So we’re all about shared resources, democratic structures and human rights.

What martial art?

I train Danzan Ryu Jujitsu and Aikido at Suigetsukan Dojo in Oakland under Professor Mike Esmailzadeh.

What other books/art have you published?

A is for Activist was my first book. Counting on Community, is coming out September 15, 2015. It is not just a numbers version of A is for Activist though. Where A is for Activist is about the issues, Counting on Community is about how we live. Both are board books for younger children and their families. Next year I have a picture book for 5-10 year-olds coming out that is a story based on an experience I had in my youth, called My Night in the Planetarium. But more on that next year.

I’ll be sure to look for those! How old is your child?

Just turned five.

What was your inspiration behind "A is for Activist"?

My son. I just wanted to have a book that would be unapologetic in its representation of our family’s values that I could read with him and not be bored by myself. There is a kid layer and an adult layer to A is for Activist, which I think is important because bored parents don’t model the love of reading and enthusiasm for ideas that is the whole point of reading with your kid. It’s not about learning what an Ostrich looks like or even that the word Apple starts with A. ABC books are not how you learn to read. But they are part of how you lean that reading is fun and words are fun and there is a world of the imagination.

The adult layer definitely is appreciated, by me, when reading it to my daughter. The hidden cats are a nice touch.

Kids love cats. In Counting on Community they get to look for ducks. Kids love ducks too.

How was the book received?

Surprisingly well. I originally just made it for my child, but then other friends saw it and asked me for a copy. So I decided to see if there would be interest beyond that and did a Kickstarter campaign that was successful and allowed me to self-publish a run of 3000. Those quickly sold out and I had to decide if I was going to print more or find a real publisher. It turns out I found a wonderful partner in Seven Stories Press/Triangle Square Books for Young Children. They also published Cory Silverberg’s What Makes a Baby and Marcus Ewert’s 10,000 Dresses—both radical books for progressive families as well. They knew how to get it out there and now there are 50,000 copies in print. I really thought there would be a lot more negative reaction from the right wing, but outside of a short conniption fit that Fox Nation blog readers had when they wrote about it, it’s been very positive. There are more of out there than you think.

Good ol’ Fox. I’m sure the worst thing that they can call you is a "Socialist".

That was actually not the worst thing. They were pretty freaked out and a bunch of keyboard warriors were apparently doing research into my background, etc. A lot of threats. A lot of racist stuff. But the truth is, since I was doing my own book sales at the time, it made absolutely zero difference. So I just marveled at the vitriol. I’m much more troubled by like-minded folks who have issues with the the book that I think are missing the point. It brings out my urge to explain. But y’know, you can’t please everyone.

Is it carried by vendors nationwide? Worldwide?

Yes. Distributed by Random House. There is also a Spanish adaptation titled A de Activista, written by the amazing Martha Gonzalez from the Grammy Award winning band Quetzal. As well as a Swedish translation.

Where can we find you, online or otherwise? is my website.

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