Saludos, everyone! This week I will be reviewing a board book that perfectly embodies this month’s theme of “New Tellings/Versions of Familiar Stories”. A is for Activist, written and illustrated by Innosanto Nagara, takes your classic alphabet book and adds a twist of political motivation. Written in a format usually meant to teach kids their ABCs, Nagara takes this intention of educating a step further. Each page follows a theme of civil rights and political activism, while promoting values such as peace, acceptance and independent thought. In emphasizing these values, Nagara also directly calls attention to contemporary topics in social justice.
From A to Z, each page is dedicated to a different value or movement, with colorful, emotive illustrations to match. Nagara covers everything from feminism, to LGBTQ rights, interracial tolerance, to environmental justice; and across it all, the ability to think critically: “Q is for Question/ Querying Qualities counter false assertions”. On the “K” page the words read “Kings are fine for story time/ Knights are fun to play/ But when we make decisions/ we will choose the people’s way!” with an image of two kids playing with toy swords. This page not only emphasizes revolution and resistance, and the danger of centralized power, but also counters gender norms by showing a little girl in pink pigtails playing with a sword. On the “R” page the words read “‘Radical Reds!’ the headlines said/ ‘Ruinous Rioters!’ the Rumors spread/ ‘Rabble Rousing Riff Raff…’/ …Really?’”, mocking misguided, public perceptions of activists and protesters. The image shows a large crowd of people in solidarity at a candle light vigil, and many of the faces can actually be recognized as prominent, historical figures. Nagara, on his book’s Facebook page, provides a “Who’s Who” of the faces he illustrated, and they include Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Cesar Chávez, Malati Choudhury and Leo Tolstoy, amongst many others.
This book was originally written in English, but has been rewritten in Spanish as A de Activista by Martha González. The Spanish version still has the same illustrations by Innosanto Nagara and the writing follows the same themes of political activism and social justice, though some of the pages have been slightly altered to either facilitate translation, or call closer attention to Latin American society and culture. In both the English and the Spanish version, the “F” page is dedicated to feminism and feministas, however, the Spanish translation also dedicates the “F” page to Frida Kahlo: “F de Frida/ ¡F de foco que brilla como el futuro!/ Para las feministas fabulosas,/ Mujeres y niñas”. Also in both the English and the Spanish, the “I” page stands for indígena and immigrante: “Indigenous and Immigrant./ Together we stand tall./ Our histories are relevant./ An Injury to one Is an Injury to all”. The illustration shows a collage of eyes of people with all different skin colors, reinforcing diversity and unity, and the idea that it is every citizen’s duty to be vigilant and look out for injustices.
Nagara’s book has received many great reviews and has been hailed as a must for parents and educators trying to teach their kids about social justice. The book has even been linked to the Occupy Wall Street movement and praised as an “ABC book for the kids of the 99 percent”. Although “Occupy” was not included in the “O” page of the book, the illustration of a pink Wall Street bull with an owl sitting on its back certainly alludes to the movement, implying that wisdom (represented by the owl) can trump injustice (the domination of Wall Street, represented by the bull). The page’s background is light images of a brain and the words at the top read, “O is for Open minds Operate best/ Critical thinking Over tests/ Wisdom can’t be memorized/ Educate! Agitate! Organize!”
Although the book is meant for ages 0-3, Rethinking Schools has suggested that it can even be used with older kids: “It could also be used as a prompt for older students to create their own alphabet books with a conscience.” This unique alphabet book encourages young readers to stand up for what they believe in, engage with their community, and become aware of the social movements going on around them, at any age.
Nagara’s pointed social agenda is counterbalanced by the playful rhythm and rhyme of his writing. Throughout the book he maintains a light-hearted and positive tone that is at once kid-friendly and empowering. Shaya Tayefe Mohaje, in her online review titled “‘A’ is for Activist, ‘B’ is for a book you should read your children,” lauds Nagara for his use of “clever rhymes—à la Dr. Seuss—and an open love for peace and equality—à la Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”. The book’s illustrations include images of children of a variety of races and ethnicities, as well as handicapped children in wheelchairs, to match Nagara’s call for diversity and tolerance. The children are all shown laughing, speaking, and marching with fists in the air, giving them full agency. Nagara visibly works to include under-represented communities and, according to a Publisher’s Weekly review, has stated that “The statistics on racial diversity alone in children’s books are appalling, not to mention gender, LGBTQ families, and progressive values in general.” Nagara challenges this norm and makes every child from every background a protagonist in his story, while teaching new generations the value of activism.
For those interested in learning more, here are some additional links and resources:
- YouTube video of Innosanto Nagara reading from the book
- Author website for Innosanto Nagara
- Author website for Martha González
I loved this book and truly admire its boldness. I think people will be talking about it for a long time. Stay tuned for more exciting versions of familiar stories!
Images: Modified from illustration, A is for Activist, pages 18 and 21; Modified from illustration, A de Activista, page 7.