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.]
Your books are unique in the world of children’s literature. Can you tell me a bit about your work and what motivated you to start writing children’s books? I live in a co-housing community with eight kids and nine adults. The first kid was born 16 years ago and so I’ve been reading books to children for the last 16 years at least. Six years ago, my own son was born and I was still reading the same books to him, and some of them were very boring and meaningless, but he really enjoyed them. I thought maybe I should do something that actually reflected my values and was fun to read for me. Initially, I was just going to do an A-Z book and ended up doing ‘A’ is for Activist. I was on a retreat with my co-workers and we sat down and wrote it from there. Because I’m a graphic designer, the illustration was what I knew how to do; it was the writing part that I had to learn.
Your books take big ideas and attempt to make them accessible for children. It’s a lofty goal and seems to give children a lot more credit than other books might. Children are usually way far ahead of where most adults think they need to be and should be. My philosophy is that it’s important to actually have these conversations early on. There is an adult layer and a child’s layer to both books. The goal is to have a book you are going to read over and over again be enjoyable for you, that has poetry and politics that adults who are reading to them can appreciate and enjoy, but also there is a kid layer.
Your first two books were board books. My Night in the Planetarium targets an older audience. Can you tell me a bit about this newest book? I always wanted to do something about Indonesia … but it had to be something that had universal themes, too. The main goal was of telling a story that is able to weave in all the themes that are important to me (the role of art in social change movements, an introduction to colonialism, an exposure to Indonesia, an understanding of how cycles of power corrupt, and the idea that we all have agency to make change), but I think beyond that there is also a particular perspective that I hope I bring to the storytelling. One that is meant to spur the child’s imagination, not just feed them information, and to create openings for conversations. Kids who come from different places often have family and cultural histories that connect to the themes in Planetarium — and this allows them to explore those themes in a way that is accessible.
I studied zoology in college, so I’m kind of into animal stuff, and I got a bearded dragon for my kid’s kindergarten and now first-grade classes, and do presentations about it. The questions that the kids have about the lizard, and the stories they have to tell about their own experiences with dragons, snakes and other animals are so much more sophisticated than many would give them credit for. At that age it’s all over the place, but it’s also really notable how hungry they are to understand the complexities of the world they live in. Similarly, a story about colonialism, dictatorship, and student revolt in far-off Indonesia is something that they immediately find ways to relate their own struggles, conflicts and emotions to.
Tell me a bit about the childhood experiences that inspired My Night in the Planetarium. My father was a dissident poet/playwright. In the late 1970s there was a surge of people and student activism trying to push against the dictatorship [in Indonesia], and there were a lot of demonstrations. His play, which I was in, was the one we toured the country with and the one that came the closest to having him end up in jail.
In Indonesia, historically there have been surges of democracy movements, and this was one of the early ones, post-1966, but it didn’t succeed. For me, as a 7-year-old, it all just felt exciting but the story itself for me now, looking back, is not just about that incident, but about colonialism, about art for social change, about the way that the cycle of power corrupts — which was what the play was about. It was critical of the regime, but it was a play about a leader who came into power after overthrowing a bad leader and then becoming that same abuser of power again. For my dad, too, the story was always meant to be a more universal argument about the way in which power corrupts and cycles of abuse.
What has the response to your work been among people who buy your books? ‘A’ is for Activist was a surprise. I was going to do some for my friends and people encouraged me to print, and so I did a run of 3,000 and took out some loans and had a plan for paying people back. It turned out it was popular and it got picked up by Seven Stories Press, and they sold 50,000 copies. I also did Counting on Community through them. I have never tried for any of this to be for everybody; it’s a book for people who share the values in the book already. It’s not trying to convince people of anything. The response has been, people who already share my values love it and people who don’t, don’t.
What do you hope to accomplish with your books? My goal is to create these books that cover areas that are good children’s books, fun for kids to read, that families enjoy, that have stories that are engaging, but are outside of the stuff you normally get, that have some depth around issues that matter. The common theme in my books is agency, the idea that you can make change, and I think that’s an important message for kids.
Seven Stories Press/Triangle Square is trying to do something with their children’s books that my books are a part of building. They had 10,000 Dresses and What Makes a Baby on their roster. This year they have Julia Alvarez’s new book about death. These all are books that address topics that are traditionally considered outside of the children’s book genre.
And of course there is this exciting movement for diversity in children’s books that is thriving. I’m involved with a number of other writers and publishers (Zetta Elliott, Maya Gonzalez, Janine Macbeth, Robert Trujillo) who are on the progressive edge of this movement, trying to make sure diversity doesn’t just mean the same books with a brown face on it (though that is needed too), but that we are also able to reflect an expanded perspective, cultural, political, and otherwise.
Even though the events of your book take place several decades ago in another country, they feel relevant to the climate today in the United States. Trump’s election just highlights the importance of having books that address real issues for young children. Families who endure war, discrimination and hardship have always had to find ways to talk to their children about difficult subjects from an early age. But there was always a demographic of families who had the privilege of sheltering their children from many realities. Yet now we all have to help them access an understanding of the coming times in a way that is true, but can also inspire and comfort rather than cause fear and despair. Some families who have read My Night in the Planetarium told me that while it’s a story about a child under a repressive regime in another country in another time, it was a valuable reference in their conversation with their children about [the U.S. election]. That yes, just like things were difficult for many people in that story, the most important thing is that they found creative ways to take action, and change is possible.
What else do you think I should know? I do a lot of field testing of my books. I spend a lot of time ensuring these stories are engaging to kids and understood by kids. I do surveys and I give out mock-ups of books with families who have kids in the right age range. I do often get people asking if the content is really appropriate for kids. I can say with confidence not every kid, not every circumstance, but for the families for whom these books speak to, they have been vetted.
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