"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“A is for Activist“ by Innosanto Nagara is a board book; for those of you unfamiliar with the pre-literate set, they are small texts with heavy-duty cardboard pages that can withstand the onslaughts of toddler hands and mouths. Books in this format are usually extremely simple, with very limited vocabularies and short, simple narratives that are in line with the attention span of a very small person.
This one, however, is an atypical abecedary more focused on token expressions of leftist vocabulary than teaching the alphabet. It is unclear whether this title is a gag intended for adults like “Go The Fuck To Sleep” or if it is legitimately geared towards young children. Although I am definitely in favor of indoctrinating children I hope that this is an example of the former, not the latter. As a litmus test I showed it to some kids aged six to nine years old, many of whom are extremely intelligent and are from nice liberal families, who have at least a very fundamental understanding of progressive politics. They also love silly or cute books geared for much younger children, and I knew that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss the title as babyish. For some mysterious reason each page of this book has a cat hidden in the illustrations—these students had fun finding the cats but barely understood a word.
There are certainly some families that are deeply steeped in Leftist or radical traditions. I have babysat for toddlers at socialist meetings, and once tried to clarify a point about Stalinism to a three year old. Some young children have been exposed to the SAT words found in the book like “abolitionism,” “grassroots,” and “vox populi.” I will guess, however, that such children are few and far between. Other families, even very progressive ones, may require hours of explanation and long, ongoing conversations about the ideas raised on every single page. Which is not a bad thing—it’s never too early to start talking with children about the environment or social justice, but I wonder if a clumsily-rhymed collection of chants is an effective way to accomplish this.
When I explain concepts such as the problematic politics of respectability, the subjective nature of religion, or dis/ableism to my students, I have to break everything way the fuck down. I ask them questions about how they feel, and how they would feel if/when. They ask big questions and I give them small answers using words they’re deeply familiar with—telling them that some people feel afraid, or feel angry, or that people think about things in different ways. With adults I’m concerned about over-simplification, but with children a simple explanation provides them with an important foundation from which to build a more complex structure. I think that throwing out big words and advanced concepts and the moving on does them a disservice by preventing them from accessing these ideas in developmentally appropriate ways.
Also, I’m sorry, I really wanted to love this book, but I just don’t think it’s well done from a literary standpoint. There is no clear or unified format of the text. Each page is vaguely its own short poem, but there’s no internal consistency throughout linking one page to the other. Some of the pages are in simple ABAB rhyme (which usually don’t scan properly), most others rhyme in a more disjointed way, others don’t rhyme at all. The words on each page that begin with the assigned letter of the alphabet are (usually) capitalized, but even then it can be difficult to determine which page stands for which letter. The “U” page is possibly the most complicated; it reads “U is for Weekends. U is for Wages,” then resolves with “Wait. That’s not U, that’s DOUBLE U. U is for Union. Union Yes!!”. That’s kind of clever if you’re a grown-up, but if your grasp on the alphabet is even slightly tenuous that’s just confusing.
As much as I love radicalizing children’s literature, I don’t think this book is the way to do it. Part of me wants to transcribe each page and deconstruct it from both a literary and political perspective, but my kids would agree that that probably isn’t kind or helpful. I also don’t automatically think that you shouldn’t get this book for your kids. Just because I’m cranky doesn’t mean that kids won’t get some value out of it, and I grudgingly agree that a frustrating introduction might be better than reading “Goodnight Gorilla” for the thousandth time.
But this begs a question: what would a better example look like? If someone said, “Hey Shekel, I want you to write a book for young children that will expand their tiny little minds, here’s some free time magically inserted into your day,” what would I do?
First I’d look to some of my favorite personal-as-political children’s books like Doreen Cronin’s “Click Clack Moo,” a hilarious “Animal Farm” for little kids. Or “Tough Chicks” by Cece Meng, about cute and fuzzy baby girl chicks who wrestle pigs and solve complex math equations while wearing little ribbons in their feathers. And “Big Mean Mike,” by Michelle Knudsen, about a hypermasculine dog who decides he’s butch enough to be friends with a colony of cute fuzzy bunnies. These books get their point across very effectively, without being overly didactic or heavy-handed. I’d attempt to create a similar story, a straightforward narrative, lots of humor, complex enough to provoke further questions and discussion but not in ways that are too difficult for a developing brain. I’ve got a few ideas rattling around, so when that magical free time shows up, I’ll be sure to let you know.