‘F’ is for Feminist. For fairness in our pay.” “‘J’ is for Justice! Justicia for all.” “L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose.” Those sprightly injunctions, sandwiched between bright cardboard covers, are a sampling from A Is for Activist, a popular alphabet primer. The Cat in the Hat for a new generation, it is one in a rash of pointedly topical titles—A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy (Wee Rebels), Global Babies, Feminist Baby— that line the shelves at Book Culture, an indie chain with three stores on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Toddler tomes, they are meant to resonate most ringingly with progressive millennials and their tiniest charges, some still in onesies, others not yet potty trained. Youngsters like Evans Yaffee, 2, who listened attentively recently at Book Culture’s story hour.
The visit was her first. “But I read to her every night,” said her mother, Sari Yaffee, who hopes to instill in Evans the conviction that little girls can do most anything their labile minds can dream. “It’s important to me that she hear not just books about princesses.”
Sense of urgency
SEATED nearby, Eilon Shomron-Atar, a psychoanalyst, was straining to filter out the distractions of some dozen pint-size listeners gurgling and spinning like jacks all around him.
Bella, his 2-year-old, sat at his knee as Tehilah Eisenstadt, a childhood educator and activist, read to the group from Emma and the Whale, which touches on themes of empathy and wildlife preservation.
Such messages matter, Shomron-Atar said, but so do values like “food justice” or, as he explained, “learning about eating ethically, buying local, organic and pain-free and knowing where your dinner comes from”. They are concerns embraced by the authors of board books like V Is for Vegan and Vegan Is Love.
Those books and their reform-minded kin have descended like crickets on indie stores and megachains, their authors, by turns upbeat or admonitory, addressing themes of immigration, climate change, racial and ethnic diversity, feminism and gender identification, all gathered under the rubric of social justice.
To booksellers and publishers, such topics are especially timely. “Since the election, there has been a greater sense of urgency about these issues,” said Annie Hedrick, an owner of Book Culture. “Parents in our area are trying to find ways to take them up with their kids.”
BOARD books and picture books are proving a popular avenue. “Five or six years ago, A Is for Activist would not have been published,” said Ken Geist, publisher and editorial director for picture books at Scholastic. “I don’t think the trend was mainstream at that point.”
Since its release in 2013 by Seven Stories Press, A Is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara, has become a children’s best-seller, with 125,000 copies in print, according to the publisher. Arguably the book’s unexpected success has given rise to a flurry of such child-friendly primers—among them, My Night in the Planetarium, also by Nagara, which is in part about speaking out against oppression. These and similar offerings seek to captivate a generation still too young and unformed to have acquired a name.
Liberally inclined romper-room fare is not entirely novel. “We stand on the shoulders of giants, people who have been pushing this for decades,” said Dhonielle Clayton, the COO of We Need Diversity Books, a group that advocates social justice in children’s literature. “We just took up their work.”
A generation ago, books like Abiyoyo, Pete Seeger’s lyrical tall tale set in a multicultural South African village, were popular with forward-thinking parents and their young. More recently, Scholastic resurrected hits like Giraffes Can’t Dance and the picture book Yo! Yes? about a budding friendship between a black boy and a white boy, which are taking their places alongside newer titles and imprints.
ONLY three years ago, the eminent children’s book writer and artist Walter Dean Myers wrote an opinion article in The New York Times lamenting the paucity of children’s books with African-American protagonists and themes. His concerns at the time were substantiated in documentation by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, which reported that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. (The 2016 figures reflect a jump: Out of 3,400 books received at the center, 286 are about black people.)
“What is the message,” Myers asked, “when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color. Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”
Today, some children may see themselves reflected in Make Me a World, an imprint from Random House focused on diversity and introduced this year by Myers’s son, Christopher, a children’s book author and illustrator.
Others will be mirrored in Jump at the Sun, a new Disney-Hyperion imprint celebrating African-American culture. Or, for that matter, Salaam Reads, a recent imprint from Simon & Schuster that will highlight the experiences of young Muslim Americans.
“I know what it’s like to feel really underrepresented,” said Zareen Jaffery, the Muslim American editor of Salaam Reads. Books that mirror the images and experiences of young Muslims give a sense of validation and belonging, she said. Salaam Reads books like Yo Soy Muslim and the forthcoming Salam Alaikum were conceived, in part, in response to a turbulent sociopolitical climate, Jaffery said. “Muslims are part of a daily conversation that focuses on a violent and deviant minority,” she said, “and that ends up defining what Muslims are to most people in the US who haven’t actually met a Muslim.”
EISENSTADT, the director of education and family engagement at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, has reservations of her own.
“Some of these books are a little heavy-handed,” she said. She has a point.
Consider some of the more aggressive passages from A is for Activist , which characterize opponents of alternative energy sources as Silly Selfish Scoundrels Sucking on Dinosaur Sludge and tag corporate chieftains as Vultures.
“For me,” Eisenstadt said, “the rule is, ‘Don’t answer the question the child hasn’t asked.’”
Shomron-Atar, who in his practice often works with very young children, is concerned that some of these books are written from an adult perspective, building on negative examples to highlight their themes. “But the very young child,” he reasoned, “isn’t able to differentiate between what is a negative example and a positive example.”
STILL, plenty of people are undaunted. “My kids were hearing books basically from birth, before they could understand language,” said Brooke Welles, whose children are now 5 and 8. A professor of communications at Northeastern University in Boston who teaches a class on children and media, Welles favors gently provocative fare like Click, Clack, Moo, a book focused on cows that stage a protest about living conditions on their farm, and others that highlight diversity.
“Because we are a white, heterosexual, cisgender family living in a racially homogeneous area,” she said, “we strove to have people of color in our books, or families, maybe, with two dads or two moms.”
Some parents suggest that these small volumes may have an outsize impact. Ashley Stoney, who writes for Romper, a web site for millennial parents, provides her daughter Ava, 3, with books that have black girl protagonists. “She is in a minority at her day care group,” Stoney said. “But when I read to her recently about a little girl with cornrows, she was very excited. ‘Oh,’ she told me, ‘She has hair like mine.’”
Image credits: Hilary Swift /The New York Times