Innosanto Nagara is one of our favorite illustrators. We first came across the posters that he designed along with the rest of Design Action Collective. His style is unmistakable and inspiring. Several years ago, he dove into the world of children’s book publishing and has been going strong ever since. With titles that include A is for Activist, Counting on Community, and My Night in the Planetarium, Innosanto has left his mark on the children’s book industry with beautiful, socially conscious books.
We chatted with him to talk about his trajectory from designer and print shop worker to the renowned author-illustrator he is today.
So for people who don’t know, give us a brief introduction of who you are and what you do.
Sure. My name is Innosanto Nagara. I’m a founding member of Design Action Collective, a worker-owned, cooperative union design and web development studio that aims to serve the Movement for social justice. We are a diverse group of 14 activist designers and developers coming from a broad range of backgrounds and segments of the movement. I myself am originally from Indonesia and cut my teeth doing student organizing in the late 80s and early 90s at UC Davis—first opposing the Iraq war, and then registration fee hikes, etc. My degree is in zoology, but I grew up in an artist family and had always gravitated towards illustration and design. So I found myself doing the newsletters, posters, and flyers for all the groups I was working with—and later decided that’s what I wanted to do full-time.
I started by volunteering and freelancing for groups I wanted to support, until I was lucky enough to be hired at Inkworks Press as a desktop publisher/prepress operator/designer. It was during my tenure there that Design Action was seeded fifteen years ago. We were founded on the idea that visual design tools are essential in the battle for hearts and minds, but that it needs to be informed by and in service of those who are doing the work. We don’t design in a vacuum, we support those who do boots-on-the-ground organizing with our skill-set. Oh, and now I’m also a children’s book writer!
Inkworks Press has been on our radar for so long because of all the amazing work that came out of it over the 40 years of its existence. You all were one of the biggest inspirations to us when we were first starting up! What was it like to be part of that space and how long were you there?
I worked at Inkworks for seven years, and it was where I really developed the vision for what we’re still doing today. I joined at a time when a lot of other Movement institutions that came from that era were struggling or had folded or given up their idealism. Inkworks was both sturdy in its core political commitments, and thoughtful enough to keep with the times. It was never easy, but we were able to continue to provide an important Movement service, while serving as a model for democratic ownership and egalitarian workplaces.
And we were innovating: providing leadership in industry best practices in terms of both labor and the environment. Working in a real industrial setting with high-skilled people who had and were still fighting for social justice since the high point of the anti-Vietnam war, anti-imperialist, feminist, black liberation, and gay rights movements (among others) was the best political education I could have ever received. When it was time for Design Action to spin-off, I basically took the Inkworks template, and applied it to the the work we were doing and went from there. Some things have thankfully evolved since then but a lot of our core principles make us in essence a continuation of Inkworks’ political mission.
What made you want to get into doing children’s books?
I know it’s cliché, but my son, really. I live in a co-housing community with four other families, and my son is the youngest of eight. The eldest just graduated high school this year, so I’d been reading children’s books to kids for many years. But when my own child was born, I was reading those same books over and over and over again. I started fantasizing about having a book that was as fun to read as the best of the books I read to my kid, but that had meaning to me and reflected our family’s values. Then one day the phrase “A is for Activist” entered my head, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Your first two titles were board books for younger readers. With My Night in the Planetarium, you entered the world of picture books. Do you prefer working in one format over the other or is it all about the story you’re trying to tell?
It’s all about the age group I’m trying to reach. My son was 2 when I wrote A is for Activist, and 4 when I wrote Counting on Community. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I would be writing any other books because I hadn’t been thinking in terms of “story” and that’s what 5, 6 and 7 year olds are more interested in. But it turns out I did have some stories to tell, and the story that became My Night in the Planetarium just happened to come out one day. It was a story I’d told a lot, since it’s a true story from my childhood. But it wasn’t until I was recounting it to my publisher that it occurred to me that it could be my next book. And, of course, the book is not really about that story. It’s really about bigger themes—colonialism, how power corrupts, how art can be a force for change—and like all my books, it’s about agency.
So to answer your question, I wouldn’t say I have a preference. My goal never was to write for writing’s sake, and I’m also growing as a writer and a parent. My sense is that I’ll always be the most interested in writing whatever format is the most present to me at the moment in my relationship to my kid.
One of the great things about your books is that they really seem to speak to a diverse audience. It’s clear that you’re very intentional about who gets depicted and how. Representation and diversity are two areas that the mainstream publishing industry tends to have trouble with. Do you think that’s changing?
There is a movement to change that. And there is a movement within that movement, challenging not just who is depicted but who is doing the depicting and who is holding the purse strings. So yes, it’s changing, but we also have a LONG way to go. If you look at the statistics on what is being published every year, it continues to be ridiculous. And if you take a look at the industry itself, it really hasn’t budged much. It’s one thing to add in black and brown faces to the same stories that have always been published. It’s quite another thing to change the stories and who gets to tell them. Perspective may seem like a subtle thing, but it’s not.
You’ve got a new book coming out called The Wedding Portrait. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
The Wedding Portrait is the story behind a photograph of a couple in wedding garb about to get arrested. It’s from when my partner Kristi and I got married in 1995. We celebrated it at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Livermore. But like My Night in the Planetarium, it’s not so much about that particular action. It’s really a broader set of stories about the history of direct action and civil disobedience—about why sometimes, when faced with injustice and oppression (or repressive regimes) we may choose to break the rules. It’s for ages 6 and up, and will be out in bookstores on October 10.
What advice would you have to author-illustrators or independent publishers who are trying to get their work out there, particularly in the children’s publishing sector?
I try to avoid assuming I have general advice to give. I’m always happy to share my experience with publishing and self-publishing, benefits and pitfalls, etc. Or answer specific questions. But if I’d say something general, it would be, “write it, read it to kids, then rewrite it.” If you have a story in mind, you don’t know if it works until you’ve told it. It’s not just about whether a particular theme is missing from bookshelves—it’s about whether you have a good way of talking about the theme with kids. And you need to find out what kids think. Sure, your “study sample” may be limited at first. But if the kids in your life aren’t captured by the story, or are confused in some way by the message, then you know you have something to work on. And as your story develops, you can broaden your testing field. But just like doing design work for the Movement, if you do it in a vacuum, you have no way of knowing whether it’s it’s what’s needed or not. But when you know your work is “kid-tested” then it doesn’t matter what the adult/industry gatekeepers have to say.
Community Spotlight is a blog series that seeks to connect people power with print power. Each post will feature a person or organization using print and design to do great work in their community and fight for a more just world. Subscribe today and let’s start building together.