Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the tag “storytelling and children”

Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

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In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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