Books have always played an important role in my life. Books about social issues and activism nudged me into my career path. It’s only now, though, that I see where the gaps in children’s literature are and am in a position to do something about it.
As a young child books about activists were a mixed experience for me: moving, but also scary and sad. It appeared that most people did not do anything to support the activists, powerful people were against them, their paths required suffering and single-mindedness, and many faced beatings, jail, and untimely deaths. Only bold, extraordinary people could have such conviction, make such sacrifices. I did not feel extraordinary. I did not even feel bold. Yes, I was taught to do the right thing and help others, but I was also expected to be polite, not yell, not demand, and definitely not challenge the adults enforcing the rules. Obviously, I did not have what it takes to be an activist—and even if I did, no path was offered to that destination.
As an elementary school teacher the books about activists I had were mostly historical. I would finish a read-aloud title about women’s suffrage, desegregation, or labor rights and tell students there is still much more to do, that it isn’t all solved yet! There’s still discrimination, limitations, power imbalances. We need you! I knew there were vibrant organizations out there doing crucial work on issues like labor rights and immigration reform, but I didn’t have a way to capture it and bring it into the reading circle, the curriculum. I remember one student, Joselyn, who acted out but thrived when given leadership positions. Where was the book that showed an undocumented young girl like her how to be an agent of change?
As an activist I enjoy the deep sense of meaning of being part of a movement. Most days, I marvel about how lucky I am to get paid to do something I care about. I get to learn about issues, develop skills to address them, work with people I admire and respect. Where are the children’s books that show how joyful and satisfying this career is—and also how normal it is? Most of the time, no one is yelling in the street, but many people are sitting at desks, working on computers, and attending meetings and conferences to think of new ideas for legislation, while also negotiating, doing education and leadership building, organizing, researching, mentoring. Where are the books that show those parts of the job? Also, so much of what I do involves multifaceted teams, networks, coalitions. Yes, there are leaders, but every leader has a movement behind them. Where are the books that tell the story not just of the individual but of the collective?
As a parent I sneak in as many social justice books as I can get away with, but my kids can smell “lessons” coming from a mile away. I wish I had more books about social change that don’t feel like history textbooks—that are funny or surprising, and that have three-dimensional characters whom my kids can relate to instead of flattened-out “heroes.” I could sneak in a lot more books that way. I look for books that make activism seem fun, cool, and right for them. It’s not easy, as, currently, their passions are mainly riding scooters and making fart jokes. I wish I had books that showed them that no matter what they are interested in—science, cooking, sports, coding, business, art—there are ways to put these in the service of something that will change the world.
As an author, in my new book, For All/Para Todos, about a young undocumented girl who becomes an activist, I want to lift up the stories of people who are making change but not making it into headlines or lesson plans. And I want to do something more subversive—I want the reader to address a range of questions: What do you think about this? What do you care about? What do you think is fair? I want to make sure kids fully own their power as agents of change. And I want to question all of us: What role do we have in this issue? How are we complicit?
If all of us were civically engaged racial and economic allies, conscious consumers, community caretakers, etc., we wouldn’t need activist heroes. Many hands make light work. How do we each do own our part so that activists don’t have to use up their energy fighting the bad and can instead use their beautiful souls to create, enjoy, dream, and thrive?
Alejandra Domenzain is a daughter of Mexican immigrants and the parent of two school-age kids. She is an activist for immigrant workers and the author of the bilingual children’s book For All/Para Todos (Hard Ball, out now).