Innosanto Nagara, the Indonesian-born graphic artist and acclaimed author/illustrator of A Is for Activist and Counting on Community, tells his own story of facing dictatorship and oppression in My Night in the Planetarium. At the age of seven, he watched his father, a playwright, put on plays that indirectly lampooned the corrupt and violent rulers of his country in the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes the youngster acted in the plays. The most popular of them was about the king of a fantasy land who turned out to be just as bad as the foreign king the people had just kicked out. It had a long and successful run at a huge arts center that included indoor and outdoor stages, a movie theater, and a planetarium, but on the last night, the actors got word that police were massing outside to arrest them all.
So that night everyone in my dad’s theater troupe brought their toothbrushes to the performance. They figured, well, you you’re going to go to jail for a long time, you may as well have your toothbrush with you so you can keep your teeth clean.
Young Innosanto and his mother could not go home either, because police were staked out there. So they spent the night after the final grand performance in the planetarium, under the stars.
There aren’t a lot of picture books that portray what it’s like for a child to live under dictatorship. The classic is Antonio Skármeta and Alfonso Ruano’s The Composition, about a boy who refuses to be tricked into writing an essay about what his parents do in their spare time. Nagara’s book is a welcome and worthy companion that belongs in every elementary school classroom. Like The Compostion, My Night in the Planetarium uses humor to portray a serious subject in a way that is understandable and appropriate for children in the early elementary grades. For both protagonists, defying those in power is a glorious adventure leading to personal growth and empowerment. At the same time, through text and illustrations these picture books reaffirm the love that family members have for each other. Ultimately, this love gives both parents and children the strength they need to survive and thrive in the most difficult of circumstances.