Author and graphic designer Innosanto Nagara began his presentation with an apology to the “Books and Activism” discussion audience in South Jakarta recently, noting that his Indonesian might sometimes be off.
“Please understand, it has been 30 years since I lived in Indonesia,” he said at the start of the event that was initiated by Cholil Mahmud from the band Efek Rumah Kaca.
His Indonesian turned out to be fluent and smooth, rarely did he insert English words into his sentence, but for one or two phrases that he struggled to articulate. Based in Oakland, California, the 48 year old did not have an American accent when speaking his father’s tongue, in fact he had something of a leftover Jakarta youth accent.
Innosanto may not be a familiar name to the Indonesian public, unlike his father, Ikranagara, a respected actor, known for his brilliant acting in one of Indonesia’s best films of all time, the 1986’s Kejarlah Daku Kau Kutangkap (Chase Me and I’ll Catch You).
But Innosanto is relatively known in the United States, thanks to A is for Activist (2012), a children’s book that introduces activism and social justice through the alphabet. Social activist and writer Naomi Klein praised the book for being “full of wit, beauty and fun.” The US radio station NPR referred to it as a “summer reading for your woke kid” to pique children’s interest in social change. Tom Morello from the band Rage Against the Machine performed a videotaped reading of the book.
The rhythm and alliteration of each of the letter in the book flow cleverly, the impact funny and straightforward. His illustrations are colorful and evocative, with a bit of the stencil style reminiscent of movement posters. The topics may not be understood just yet by my 2.5-year-old son, but he was excited to look for the little black cat that Innosanto strategically and cleverly slipped into each page.
A is for Activist has sold 200,000 copies and its success has birthed three more children’s books with similar themes: Counting on Community (this time with a duck on each page), My Night in the Planetarium, and The Wedding Portrait.
A is for Activist.
Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally.
Actively Answering call to Action.
Are you An Activist?
Innosanto was born to activist parents. Aside from acting, Ikranagara is a literary figure who, as told in My Night in the Planetarium, was once pursued by the authorities when one of his play scripts offended the Suharto regime. His mother Kay is an academic and an education activist.
Born and raised in Jakarta, Innosanto moved to the U.S. in 1988 to study zoology at the University of California, Davis. He then chose a career as a graphic designer and became one of the founders of Design Action Collective, a cooperative design studio in Oakland that does design work for activist organizations.
Innosanto has been involved in various types of activism since his campus days at UC Davis . There he met his wife, Kristi Laughlin, on a bus full of anti-war activists. In fact their wedding was held in the middle of an anti-nuclear protest in Oakland. That event later became the background for his book The Wedding Portrait.
Yet it wasn’t until the birth of their first child Arief in 2010 that Innosanto started to think of writing children’s books.
“We live in a cohousing community in North Oakland with five families. I often read books to the children in our community. When my own child was born, I found it difficult to find books that reflected our values that were also fun to read,” he said in the discussion.
Thus emerged the idea of writing A is for Activist for his son. He got together with his friends from Design Action Collective to help make a list of themes that were important to include in the book.
“I’m fortunate in that I can write and design, so making a book came easy. In terms of content, of course we have to simplify the issues because these are children’s books. But I try to explain things as realistically as possible,” he said.
Innosanto Nagara sits between Cholil Mahmud from the band Efek Rumah Kaca (left) anc comic expert
Hikmat Darmawan. (Photo courtesy Irma Hidayana)
Originally he hadn’t really thought about marketing the book, but his friends asked him to print copies for them. For the type of book they wanted to publish – a board book – they found out that they had to print a minimum of 1,000 books. So he did a fundraiser through Kickstarter, which succeeded to raise enough money to print 3000 books. The books sold out after just two months of internet sales. Then Innosanto decided to approach publishers, but there was not a strong response because the issues were seen as taboo for children.
“I was introduced to Seven Stories Press, an independent, progressive publisher, who then went on to publish all my books,” said Innosanto
The market’s response was divided, there were those who liked it and those who didn’t.
“There are also those who like it but say the themes are too heavy, but I don’t agree, because there is context. Children are already exposed to the issues from TV and other media. These books are conversation starters for children, teachers, and adults,” he explained.
The minds of kids are always fascinating, he adds, because they always come up with questions that are different and unpredictable.
“The core is not the information, but the feeling or idea. That if there is something that is wrong it can be opposed, and there is a path to change. After reading the book there should be a sense of empowerment,” he said.
Though many publishers rejected the book because they considered the issues taboo for children, there was hardly any protest when the book hit the market.
“There was some protest from vegetarians because I used hot dogs as an example,” he laughed.
H is for Healthy food—a Human right.
Honeydew, jicama, nature’s delight.
Hummus. Hot dogs, Havarti cheese.
Hot dogs!?! Yes! Healthy Hot dogs please! (And pizza)
The publishing landscape in the United States has changed, according to Innosanto, with there being a number of communities producing progressive books for children. Some have even made it on the New York Times Best Sellers list, like the Rad Women series.
A is for Activist itself has been translated to Spanish and Swedish. “For the Spanish version, we worked with a musician, because she had the artistry to write lyrics,” Inno said.
In Indonesia, where there is a currently a rise in anti-diversity sentiment, translating and publishing his book might be difficult because the letter L is for “L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose.”
Nowadays Innosanto does think about the “market” because it’s not just him and his friends who read his books. But his creative process is still the same, namely that he wants to write the stories he wants to tell his child.
“Addiction to gadgets for children is a problem everywhere. The goal of our children’s books community is to offer an alternative, not just in terms of medium, but also the narrative. Not all books are great either, of course. Creating children’s books can and in itself be a form of activism,” he said.
Activism became even more important in the US in the Trump era, and many more Americans are getting involved in movements and demonstrations against the government’s policies.
“Since Trump was elected, it’s like racism got a new platform. Those on the right are looking for a fight,” he said.
“Now there are more opportunities for education. But two years into Trump, he still is going strong. Maybe there is an error in my theory of change. Even with the attacks on immigrants, the big demonstrations, other opportunities, we continue to fail. Honestly I’m a bit pessimistic.”
According to Innosanto, the Americans should look to Indonesia on the question of democracy. That is why he talks about the history of democracy in Indonesia in My Night in the Planetarium, so his child understands colonialism and how it changed the world.
“I think Americans can learn from Indonesia, where we have had success in overturning a regime. (The principle of) American Exceptionalism and that kind of attitude should be undressed and taken down a bit, so that there can be democracy from below. Democracy has to be from below and every day. In America participation in elections is at most 50 percent,” he noted.
For himself, what is important is “I want to be on the right side of history.”
Meanwhile, one day when I read the book to him, my son seemed to have gone from just looking for cats and ducks on each page to a toddler activist enthusiastically chanting:
Pow-Pow-Power to the Pee-Pee-PEOPLE!
This article is translated by Innosanto Nagara himself, from the original version in Indonesian.
Find out how increasing religious conservatism affects public schools and universities in Indonesia and follow @heradiani on Twitter.