Many of us fondly remember our favorite children’s book. We think of the shared experience of reading with our loved ones, the captivating pictures, and the transformative lessons.
Childhood is arguably when the power of books is the most impactful — so impactful that when this window is missed, young people might not have any interest in reading later in life. But not all children’s books are created equal or are available to children everywhere.
When Amelia Hapsari went on the search for books to read to her young daughter, she was disappointed to find that the children’s books available in Indonesia were not always well told and often presented religious angles that took away from the story.
This gap inspired Amelia to create a changemaker book series when she joined Ashoka as the Southeast Asia framework change leader in 2020.
Turning a new page
Amelia found a like-minded collaborator in Ashoka Fellow and Southeast Asia diamond leader, Nani Zulminarni, who recalled how influential children’s books had been for her when she was growing up.
“I still remember the stories my grandmother told me. I can remember all of them. That is why I believe in the power of storytelling,” she explains.
Amelia and Nani connected with the literacy nonprofit Room to Read and through that connection, secured the support of three main publishers: Bestari, Bhuana Ilmu Populer (BIP), and Nourabooks.
The team’s big idea was to create a series of children’s books based on the changemaker journeys of Ashoka Fellows and Young Changemakers in Indonesia — a collection that the team would call, “Becoming a Changemaker.”
Indonesian children would be able to learn the stories of real people in their communities who have sparked movements for change and unleashed the extraordinary potential of others.
“What made this project so unique is the genre. […] All the characters are real and still alive,” BIP editor Novalya Putri observes.
The power of a story
Children’s books are among the best mediums for inspiring empathy and building a child’s ability to identify an issue and then take action for the good of all. As Nani reflected, “If children are given access to stories that increase their imagination when they are young — for example, stories that show [them] that they are able to make a change to the environment or help others in need around them — these stories will stick with them, which [will] create these important values.”
Ashoka Young Changemaker Alvian Wardhana said that he was excited to share his story. “I can inspire more children to create change even from their [young] age and [immediate] environment,” he says.
In the changemaker book series, young readers can follow these real-life protagonists through their challenges and victories, thereby becoming invested in and identifying with these characters.
The readers then experience a mindset shift, realizing that they too can find the answers to our world’s most pressing issues instead of becoming paralyzed by them. As Nani explains, “we also have to open up the reality of a world full of problems to children, while inviting them not to be afraid of [these] problems.”
“I especially love that a lot of the changemakers themselves are children,” Kerri Thomsen, the literacy director at Room to Read, expresses. “When children can see someone who grew up just like them, creating positive change, that can empower them to feel that they can make change too.”
Books from the collection
How do we embrace a friend labeled as problematic? How can hotels manage waste while benefitting farmers? And what is it like to be raised by a single mother dedicated to gender equality? These are just some of the topics that the changemaker book series covers. There are currently 12 published stories in the series, which include:
- Luftan dan Monster (Luftan and the Monster), about Ashoka Young Changemaker, Luftan
- Gelembung Ajaib Yuyun (Yuyun’s Magic Bubble), about Ashoka Fellow, Yuyun Ismawati
- Petualangan Berbagi Impian (The Adventure of Sharing Hope), about Ashoka Young Changemaker, Alvian
- Pahlawan Sampah Elektronik (Electronic Waste Recycler), about Ashoka Young Changemaker, RJ
- Penenun Mimpi (Dream Weaver), about Ashoka Young Changemaker, Itrin
- Sang Pemimpi Besar (The Big Dreamer), about Ashoka Fellow, Hidayat Palaloi
Also among these books is Perempuan Kuat Itu Ibuku (That Strong Woman Is My Mother), Nani’s own story about becoming an activist and movement leader for women-headed families.
Creating narrative nonfiction for kids
The creative team of outsourced writers and illustrators received intensive guidance from Room to Read, including workshops and mentorship on adaptation — how to take real-life stories previously framed for adults and apply the principles of fictional storytelling to make these stories appealing to children.
“The challenge is that we can’t give a theme that is too dark or difficult for children to understand,” writer Dian Kristianti explains. “So, I have to find a way to bring in new angles.”
And illustrator Matahari Indonesia reflected on a challenge specific to her job — a lack of reference points: “Are the detailed illustrations really accurate to the character’s real life? I’m truly grateful if what I’ve illustrated is in accordance with what the characters went through and felt in real life,” she muses.
This project was a learning experience for all, not just in writing and illustrating, but in the changemaking lessons that, perhaps inadvertently, impacted the creatives as well.
“It has been an interesting experience for me since the person I am writing about is still very much alive, which allowed me to talk directly to them,” writer Sofie Dewayani explains. “So, […] I am also able to gain insight and important life lessons from them.”
After carefully curating these books, before publishing, the creative team conducted field testing at local elementary schools. “The process of engaging with the target audience is highly important,” editor Noor H. Dee from Nourabooks stresses. “For example, we ask, ‘Is there anything that you like?’ ‘Yes, there is!’ ‘Why do you like it? Do you have a picture that you don’t understand?’ Hopefully, field testing can be a program that can be actualized by other publishers in Indonesia.”
Nani was also enthusiastic about the process, saying, “It’s satisfying to hear the feedback from the kids that they can resonate with the books. They feel like the stories from the books are relatable.”
Into the world
After the official launch of these 12 children’s books at the Indonesia International Book Fair in mid-November, 6,500 copies have been distributed to school and community libraries, and these books are projected to reach 170,000 elementary schools in Indonesia.
By using their own funds or the Bantuan Operasional Sekolah (BOS) fund (a special fund that the Ministry of Education allocates to public and under-resourced schools), any school can purchase these books from the catalog of the Ministry of Education.
“I would like children to absorb the positive energy, all the kindness, and the changemaker spirit to initiate change from those books,” Ashoka Young Changemaker, Nabila Ishma, says. “They will realize that there are a lot of problems around us that […] maybe we can solve. We can always start from the small things around us.”
“When children read my story, I hope they can be inspired to make their own movement as early as possible,” Alvian agrees. “Especially when children from the village read them, [those children] will realize that their dreams are valid, and nothing can stop them from achieving [them].”
Looking towards the future, Ashoka sees the potential for Room to Read to take this storytelling project to other countries. For now, the accomplishment is a breathtaking one on its own.
As Amelia reflects on the project, “Storytellers, illustrators, publishers, teachers, [and] parents have a huge role to play in painting the imagination of children about what they can be — what changemaking looks like. In the ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world, everyone has a role to play.”
The online versions of the “Becoming a Changemaker” series will be available soon, for free, at literacycloud.org. These digital books will be available in Indonesian and English, with the possibility of translation into 23 other languages in the future. To learn more about the making of this series, check out this video featuring interviews with the project team and behind-the-scenes footage.