Like probably many other CD readers, I recall growing up with relatively apolitical children’s books. I remember stories about mischievous rabbits, talking teddy bears and glamorous princes and princesses, but I never learned about things that, as an adult, I have become quite passionate about, things like socialism, feminism, the environment or anti-colonial movements like the Zapatistas. Thankfully, for kids today, author and illustrator Innosanto Nagara’s new children’s book, A is for Activist (Triangle Square, 2013), offers an alternative to ignite children’s radical imaginations from early age. A twist on the standard “ABC” illustrated kid’s book, A is for Activist is an important primer on progressive issues that children and adults alike will enjoy reading and discussing.
A is for Activist is the most recent addition to the field of radical children’s literature, but it is by no means the first revolutionary children’s book. In fact, there is a long history of oppositional children’s storytelling, from socialist primers in the 1910s to the anti-authoritarian and contrarian sensibilities of stories from authors such as Dr. Seuss in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, Seuss admitted that The Lorax was a polemic against pollution while The Cat in the Hat was written to encourage children to challenge the power and authority of adults. Julia L. Michenberg and Philip Nel have recently gathered a variety of the early revolutionary children’s stories in Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature. A is for Activist continues this radical storytelling tradition in the 21st century.
Nagara’s book offers an alphabetical survey of left issues and concepts, starting with A. “A is for activist. Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally. Actively answering a call to action. Are you an activist?” The author’s lyrical writing hooks the reader immediately. “B is for Banner, bobbing in the sky.” “C is for Co-op. Cooperating cultures. Creative counter to corporate vultures.” “F is for Feminist. For fairness in our pay. For freedom to flourish and choose our own way.” In simple yet powerful passages, Nagara brings into conversation different strands of contemporary activism: “I. Indigenous and Immigrant. Together we stand tall. Our histories are relevant. An injury to one is an injury to all.” The author accounts for a whole host of issues, including LBGTQ rights, black history, environmental issues and union rights; it fittingly ends with “Z is for Zapatista of course.” It is an immensely enjoyable and lively read.
A is for Activist is as visually appealing as it is politically on point. A children’s book has to have captivating imagery and Nagara delivers. Where possible, the author chooses to represent mostly women and people of colour in strong and active positions, such as protesting for justice and doing all socially necessary labour (from farming to breastfeeding). Nagara combines the language of the left with its symbolic and visual culture by including illustrations of activists like Malcolm X and Comandanta Ramona, the logo of the Industrial Workers of the World, and pictures of the anarcho-syndicalist black cat, which appear on every page for kids to find. Drawn in dynamic colour, Nagara’s work will capture the attention of children and sustain the interest of adults.
A is for Activist should be on every progressive parent or caregiver’s bookshelf. From Activist to Zapatista, it is a wonderful primer on political issues as well as an engaging book. The only issue is that it is mostly American focused. The issues the author addresses are, for the most part, universal, but it would be great to have a series of progressive children’s books that tackle different dimensions of left and labour organizing in Canada specifically. Nevertheless, A is for Activist will certainly make story time a lot more thought-provoking.
Sean Carleton is an activist, educator and writer living in Peterborough, Anishinaabe territory.
This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Childhood).