“C is for Co-op….G is for Grassroots....J is for Justice!...” These are the lead-ins to three of the 26 entries in A Is for Activist, an alphabet board book featuring a multicultural cast of children and adults. Written, illustrated, and originally self-published by Innosanto Nagara, an activist and graphic designer, the book found a new home at Seven Stories Press, whose Triangle Square Books for Young Readers imprint published it in 2013. In September, the publisher will release Nagara’s second work, Counting on Community, a counting book that reinforces the principles introduced in the first.
Born in Jakarta and now residing in North Oakland, Calif., Nagara responds quickly and succinctly when asked what inspired him to write A Is for Activist: “My son, Arief Romero. We live in a wonderful cohousing community with a bunch of other families, and my son, who is now five, is the eighth child in our community. I’ve been reading children’s books to the older kids for years, and after he was born, I realized that what was missing were books that reflected our values and were also fun to read. So I decided to write one for Arief.”
A founding member of Design Action Collective, a worker-owned cooperative design studio in Oakland dedicated to “serving the Movement for social change,” Nagara brainstormed with fellow members about topics to include in the activism-themed board book that would become A Is for Activist. The author, whose background in both graphic design and printing served him well, made “a little homemade version” of the book for his son, and began showing it to others. “Quite a few people said to me, ‘I want a copy,’ ” Nagara explained. So I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and there was a lot of excitement about it, and the book was funded.”
Knowing “a few hundred friends wanted it,” he published 3,000 copies of A Is for Activist, and created a website to market the board book. “I did a lot of outreach,” said Nagara. “Basically, what I usually do around issues I did around my book – and the print run sold out pretty quickly. Then I had to make a choice: either do another printing and reinvest what I’d made back on the book – and have two pallets of books in my living room again—or see if a publisher would take it on.”
Nagara chose the latter route after being introduced to Seven Stories by Cory Silverberg, who had launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish his What Makes a Baby (which was picked up by Triangle Square in 2013), and Marcus Ewert, whose 10,000 Dresses was released by the publisher in 2008. As it turns out, Nagara made a smart decision: Triangle Square now has 50,000 copies of A Is for Activist in print, and Counting on Community has a 15,000-copy first printing on order.
A Fitting Partnership
Dan Simon, Seven Stories president and publisher, warmly welcomed Nagara to his stable of authors. “During our initial conversation, I told Inno that Seven Stories exists to publish books like his,” he recalled. “Sometimes publishers are threatened by the self-publishing phenomenon, but our experience is different. We embrace the self-publishing aesthetic and independence, and have great respect for all that Inno did as a self-publisher. And though ours is a true partnership, I follow his lead.”
Simon gives much credit to word-of-mouth buzz and independent bookseller enthusiasm for the success of A Is for Activist, currently the top-selling title on the Seven Stories list, which is distributed by Penguin Random House. “This book has been mentioned in more articles than any of our recent books,” he said. “It has appeared on a number of independent booksellers’ and regional bestseller lists, and the sales numbers keep building and building.”
After encouraging Nagara to do a follow-up to A Is for Activist, Simon was pleasantly surprised when the author called him six months later to report that he had finished Counting on Community. “Inno’s art is only getting better and better, and he is truly a unique author,” noted the publisher. “His engagement is almost more celebratory than political, which is key. In activism, the celebration is as important as the politics, and Inno does that in a very low-key way, but very persuasively.”
A Is for Activist is available in both Spanish-language and Swedish editions, and Triangle Square will publish a picture-book adaptation in fall 2016, with the text also presented in sign language. That same season, the house will release Nagara’s third book, My Night at the Planetarium, a picture book based on an incident from his childhood in Indonesia, when his father, a poet and playwright, wrote a political play that “ended up getting him into some trouble.”
“I never really intended to become a children’s book author,” said Nagara of his literary career path. “I wrote A Is for Activist to be on the right side of history – for my son’s sake. And it was very nice to discover how many other people share our values. Everything I write, I write for my son, who is now reading chapter books as well as picture books. Recently I started thinking, ‘Am I going to have to start writing chapter books now?’ I’m not sure about that – but we’ll see!”
A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara. Seven Stories/Triangle Square, $9.99 2013 ISBN 978-1-60980-539-5
Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara. Seven Stories/Triangle Square, $8.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-60980-632-3