Mother Daughter Book Reviews is pleased to welcome author Danny Kravitz as a guest contributor with us today. Mr. Kravitz is here to discuss the importance of inclusion and diversity in storytelling.
A Passion for Inclusion in Storytelling
By Danny Kravitz
When I was a boy, growing up in Pepper Pike, Ohio, I watched an amazing story unfold on the movie screen at The Richmond Theater on Mayfield Road. That theater was the kind of classic old, red-brick building, with one small candy counter to serve its two screens, that still fills my memories of suburban 1970s and 1980s. It’s where storytelling often first grabbed me, staring amazed into another world from the dark of my seat.
That day I watched the story of Tarzan, a boy who had been raised by apes. He was forced to leave his jungle home and become civilized, only to choose in the end to return to the lush green of the jungle mountains, calling for his real family, vanishing into the trees. And it was that last image that moved me so much. Through him, I felt this feeling; it was somehow made more clear to me: The longing to return home, to find a home, and the joy of re-finding it. I watched the character on the screen, yearning for a place where he felt safe, where he understood the rules, where he belonged. And the story was so well-told, it also stirred in me a great feeling of empathy. I still have that empathy—when I see immigrants working menial jobs and trying to build a life, when I see children not quite fitting in, when I meet the indigent or the homeless. Maybe as a boy I had that feeling already. Maybe the story focused it, or loosened it down from the sometimes frozen block of emotions of the adolescent. But Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan warmed my heart that day. And “belonging” is one of the themes I find myself exploring in my writing now.
My passion for storytelling has only grown deeper as I’ve gotten older. I simply love great stories, often within a rich historical setting—all kinds of tales. Reading them is fun. Writing them, even more fun. You get to go on adventures, learn cool things and meet people you like. Rough stuff happens to your characters and you feel for them. Things work out for your characters and you’re happy for them—and for you, because somewhere along the journey you have become them, on some level that you can’t usually see. But you feel it, with goosebumps or sinking stomachs or warm smiles that fill your bedroom on a Sunday morning as the sun leaks into your day.
In our stories we often address diversity, exploring subjects like economic disparity or differing abilities or just plain seeming different. And when we address diversity (and adversity) in children’s books like Tommy McKnight and the Great Election, the experience can deliver its own particular kind of joy.
Poor, wealthy, white, brown, disabled, athletic, popular, quiet…but are we so different? That question is inevitably asked of young readers when confronting diversity and adversity in story. And by taking little journeys with these characters, our readers can discover some interesting answers. Despite our perceived differences, it is often through both connection and an acceptance of ourselves, a love of our special uniqueness, that the challenges of feeling different or oppressed become something else—something happy, or joyful, even life-changing. And at those times stories become so much more than just a fun read.
Tommy, from Tommy McKnight and the Great Election, is feeling pretty darn oppressed when his story begins. He’s crippled with polio, bullied and, most importantly, hopeless. But Tommy’s ship begins to right itself when he challenges the belief that he’s a lost cause, that his polio needs to stop him from living. And slowly he starts to live again—running for school office, making an important friend, doing his physical therapy and discovering all the life there still is to live, to really live.
Tommy connects on many levels—with peers, with helpers, with a man running for President, even with his bully nemesis. And without realizing it, he begins to learn that people, all people, the most unlikely people, all need the same things: love, comfort, purpose and a sense that they are okay. He begins to see himself in others, others in himself. And he likes himself at the end of the story.
Sometimes stories are just stories. Whatever they are—wondrous, exciting, mysterious—they are as they should be. But when they include challenges and explorations of diversity we may, by the very nature of story and the identification with characters, be helping adolescents to look below the surface of what they first see with people or situations. Stories may also help with what they first feel when identifying as different, or oppressed, themselves—to find universal childhood and life experiences, to see what is shared among all of us no matter our shape, color, background, abilities. And finally, stories can help us to see our uniqueness as wonderful, as colors of a rainbow, as snowflakes floating—a wonder, each one of them—and to learn we can celebrate that unique beauty of ourselves.
We all believe things. Well, stories do, too. And when they tell you their ending, they tell you what they believe. What Tommy McKnight believes is that everyone has beauty, has gifts. No situation is as bad as it seems, ever. When people feel bad, it is never permanent, there is reason to hope, there are positives that can’t be seen yet.
How do we share that with children—or with ourselves—when the messages we get are so filled with doom and fear and comparing? That is the joy of taking on diversity and adversity in storytelling, and in watching as the story tells you—just as Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan told me, in a little red-brick movie theater thirty years ago—that together we are part of something shared; that we are all people, beautiful and worthy of compassion no matter the situation and worthy of hope, no matter the situation. And about this…how can I be anything but passionate?
About the Guest Contributor: Danny Kravitz
As the author of six historical children’s books including Tommy McKnight and the Great Election (January, 2016; Stone Arch Books), Danny Kravitz infuses his passions for history and inclusion into the rich stories he tells. A professor of storytelling and screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago for more than a decade, Danny’s unique experience as both a writer and an impassioned educator combine to facilitate a wonderful connection to his audiences—a connection he nurtures with positive and inspiring engagement. Danny like to write uplifting stories, with characters who are easy to care about. The themes he often explores are about not just succeeding, but growing and learning.