Children’s books have a way of teaching lessons without coming across as preachy or insistent. They teach you to eat your vegetables and take care of others with playful language and bright illustrations. And, for some reason, they tend to stick with us. Those first stories stay in the back of our heads well into adulthood, reminding us to be kind to animals, try new things, and maybe give lima beans a chance.
If you’re hoping to teach your children even more radical lessons than those (or just looking for some great children’s books for yourself), you might want to head over to Sunset Park’s art and bookmaking collective Booklyn for its latest exhibition: “Lil’ Radicals: Multicultural and Social Justice Publications for Kids in the 21st Century.”
After the 2016 election, you might have noticed stores stocking more children’s books tackling ideas of resistance, protest, and diversity. Think A Is for Activist, Malala’s Magic Pencil, or Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted. If you’re anything like Booklyn curator and managing director Monica Johnson, you may have even wondered how you could create community around those ideas of social justice.
Johnson, who was volunteering at Interference Archive in Brooklyn around the time of the election, became interested in creating politically engaged programs for children and their caretakers. She helped found Radical Playdate to make the Archive more inclusive for families and developed a list of radical kids books. When Johnson joined Booklyn as its managing director last year, she brought that same interest in storytelling and programming for children.
“Lil’ Radicals,” set to open this Saturday and run through June 1, asks: “Where are the independently published children’s books with a focus on multicultural affirmation, social justice education, and empathy development?”
Booklyn answers with over 150 children’s books assembled in an exhibition and library.
The “Lil’ Radicals” exhibit is divided into three main spaces: an exhibit of recently published radical children’s books, an accompanying exhibit of 20th century children’s books that explains the history of social justice publications, and a cozy library space with books for visitors to browse and read.
Booklyn’s collection of recently released books includes Kathy Yamasaki’s adaptation of her family’s time in the Japanese internment camps, Fish for Jimmy; Robert Liu-Trujillo’s bilingual story of a boy getting his first flat-top haircut, Furqan’s First Flat Top; Artika Tyner’s book about a young girl inspired by the freedom fighters, Justice Makes a Difference; South Bronx public school teacher Anthony Tucker’s book for his students, A Rocky Start; and Mariame Kaba’s gentle read about a young girl missing her incarcerated father, Missing Daddy.
The collection also emphasizes the work of independent publishers like Sari Sari Storybooks, which works in the languages of the Philippines; Flamingo Rampant, which emphasizes multicultural and LGBTQ identities; and Savory Words, a deaf-centric publisher.
Alongside these contemporary reads, “Lil’ Radicals” also explores the history of independent social justice publishing with a variety of vintage books. Booklyn has copies of Russian children’s books, stories printed by independent feminist presses in the 1970s, a collection of Ms. magazine’s “Stories for Free Children” series, and the Girl Scouts of America’s Let’s Take a Walk. Johnson noted that the stories remain remarkably relevant, diving into issues of gun control, adoption, and animals rights.
Booklyn has worked especially hard to make the exhibit space welcoming and accessible for all ages: former intern Olivia Siu developed a book bingo game for children to play while they visit the exhibit, and Booklyn has extended its hours to Saturdays so kids can visit after school. On those Saturdays, Booklyn will also host special programs for kids and families, including a community flag-making workshop, “Make-Your-Own Gendertastic Coloring Book with Jacinta Bunnell,” and workshops for kids and adults to develop their own children’s book ideas with author and illustrator Kathy Yamasaki.
“We’re relative newcomers to the Sunset Park community,” Johnson said, speaking about Booklyn’s recent move from Greenpoint to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. “What a great way to get to know our communities.”