In difficult times, stories are vital. They are tools we can use to fight against systemic oppression. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and tell empowering stories of resistance. We must share these stories with children, especially in classrooms, where group discussion can be encouraged and perspectives respectfully exchanged. My Night in the Planetarium could not have come to us at a better time; it is just the kind of story children need to hear. Right away.
Nagara, who also wrote and illustrated A Is for Activist and Counting on Community, told Britni de la Cretaz at the Washington Post that his exquisitely illustrated picture book is about many things: “the role of art in social change movements, an introduction to colonialism, an exposure to Indonesia, an understanding of how cycles of power corrupt, and the idea that we all have agency to make change.” As a child in Indonesia under the iron-fisted rule of General Suharto (in office 1967–98), Nagara enjoyed playing roles in the popular political theater his father wrote and presented all around the country. He grew up observing and participating in peaceful defiance of systemic injustice.
The title of Nagara’s true story refers to a night when he was 7 years old. His father’s theater troupe got word that the police were going to arrest the actors after their show—so they all sneaked out with the audience. Nagara and his mother spent that memorable night in the Jakarta planetarium watching the stars, safely hidden from the police. His father stayed in hiding for a while, then returned to his family and continued to speak out against Suharto’s “New Order” through stage performances and poetry.
“Only three countries in the world have more people than Indonesia. Do you know what they are?” asks Nagara at the beginning of his story. In just a few pages, we learn that Indonesia is a country of 17,000 islands, with 300 different ethnic groups and 750 distinct languages and dialects. They were colonized by the Dutch: “We Indonesians are really nice, so we let them stay. They stayed for 350 years.” And we learn about revolution, too: “[The Dutch] hadn’t been very good guests. They stole our spices. They took our government. And they put people in jail if they complained. So people from all across the Indonesian islands decided to UNITE and kick them out.”
With engaging art, humor, and a warm, colloquial style that lends itself to being read aloud, the author spins a short, age-appropriate—but not watered-down—historical tale of his homeland. The story will remind readers of many other historical and current events around the world.
My Night in the Planetarium is published by the independent Seven Stories Press. It is heartening to read Seven Stories’ credo: “Publishers have a special responsibility to defend free speech and human rights, and to celebrate the gifts of the human imagination wherever we can.” Certainly, Innosanto Nagara’s latest book is one such gift, helping parents and educators explain complex issues to our children—and, I hope, inspiring us all to be activists. ◼