Story at Heart
People learn from stories, which makes telling them to young people harder than it seems. Children’s authors Taye Diggs, Francisco Jiménez, and Tim Myers came together to discuss the impact of their work.
‘In the beginning…’ that’s where so many stories start. It is also were learning begins.
And since our beginning, humans have used stories to learn, to teach, to captivate, and to create. Our desire to hear stories—and more than that, to have them told to us—is deeply human, says Department of English senior lecturer Tim Myers, himself the author of 14 children’s books. It begins in childhood, perhaps even before we know it consciously, and never leaves us.
“There’s nothing quite like a story,” Myers says. “It’s the power of ‘and then what happened?’”
It’s only in understanding stories in that context that we truly understand the significance of children’s literature. As Myers says, “children’s literature, children—it’s literally our future.”
Myers, alongside modern languages professor emiterus and author Francisco Jiménez ’66, joined actor and Frank Sinatra Artist-in-Residence Taye Diggs for a panel on writing for children February 27.
Jiménez is the author of two children’s books, which, like his autobiographical series, touch upon his childhood as a Mexican immigrant to the United States. Diggs details his experiences as a person of color in his own childhood in “Chocolate Me” and “Mixed Me.” In adulthood, they tell stories of their own beginnings.
Myers says the implementation of serious, broader themes within children’s literature is critical to helping children shape their view of the world. It’s a common misconception that children’s books are simple texts for simple minds, Myers says. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, he adds—it can be wonderful. But the assumption that all children’s literature is simple is wrong.
Jiménez spoke to the importance of documenting his experience as a child working in the fields. He wanted to see himself—and the other children and families that shared his experiences—reflected in literature. He hopes immigrant children and the adults in their lives will be touched by his books.
Myers, noting that Jimenez identifies as “an adult writer who also writes for kids,” says that Jiménez’s purpose is introspective.
“As a children’s writer, you’re often writing to a dual audience—books are often read to kids by children or parents,” he says. “It’s really clever that you’re also sending a message to teachers [through these stories].”
For Diggs, whose son inspired “Mixed Me,” guiding children through their identities is about positive representation.
“I want my child to be proud. My child’s mixed, and this book talks about being proud of who he is and where he comes from,” he says.
Senior lecturer in the Department of Communication Katharine Heintz, who facilitated the hour-long conversation, says respecting the experiences of children is “honoring the idea of being who you are, for who you are, and not for how you’re seen.”
“We’re telling them this story: that you are valuable,” she says. And if we tell the story from the beginning, they may even learn they are.
Senior Lecturer Katharine Heintz (left) led the conversation with Taye Diggs (middle), Francisco Jimenéz (right), and (not pictured) Tim Myers. Photo by Charles Barry
Diggs Wows at First Sinatra Event of the Year
Encourages students to “listen to yourself and your passions”
By Julia Joyce '19
Taking to the Louis B. Mayer Theatre stage in shiny, silver shoes and a Superman t-shirt, 2018-2019 Frank Sinatra Artist-in-Residence Taye Diggs spoke to a packed crowd about passion, performance, and learning to trust yourself. The talk, titled “Explorations of Your Passions,” kicked off his year-long residency at Santa Clara University.
Nearly bursting with nervous energy as he paced the stage, Diggs joked “I don’t do lectures!” before turning to his artistic and personal journey. Sporting a decades-long career of stage, television and film work, Diggs said his passion for performance began when he transferred to the School of Arts in Rochester, NY, in tenth grade. Diggs recalled his new school as being a place of belonging, one that allowed him to utilize dancing, acting, and singing as a means of expressing himself. "I was off to the races,” Diggs said of his eagerness to perform. “There was no way I was going to go back."
Diggs asserted that the performing arts, especially dance, came naturally to him and “didn't feel like work.” He described himself as “a conduit [that] tapped into a certain energy, and I trusted that. When I have not trusted that, that’s when things have gone awry.”
He also admitted that in his early days as a performer he wasn’t particularly mindful of his path. “People said [acting] was the way to go so I did.” It was this confidence that carried him through high school and college until he landed the role of Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III in the 1996 original production of Rent, which went on to win a Tony and Pulitzer Prize.
Diggs noted that personal struggles, including his divorce and child custody issues concerning his son, Walker, now 9, led to profound changes in his life and personal passions. He observed that in 2015, in the midst of this personal turmoil, he assumed the lead role in the Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That decision, he asserted, was his first purposeful career choice.
In a separate interview prior to his Mayer performance, Diggs elaborated on this important change, noting “The older I got...my art became less about [fame and popularity] and more about what was more fulfilling to me."
As he considered how others might find their passions, Diggs recommended this same trust of self: "Listen to yourself. Listen to yourself and your passions. Listen to that, don't be afraid, know that it could change, and be cool with that."
Q: What advice do you have for students wanting to pursue a career in theater?
"Go for it! Go for it! I don't want to be one of those cats that runs down a list of the do's and don'ts, because everybody's path is different, and I hated when people tried to tell me what to do when I was younger, I hated that."
Diggs also shared his excitement for working with students in the next months as his 2018-19 Sinatra Residency continues. If his infectious energy Sunday evening is any indication, the students are in for a treat.
Photos from Taye Diggs' Visit on Nov. 11, 2018
About the Frank Sinatra Chair
The Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts was established in 1980 with initial funds from the proceeds of the 14th Annual Golden Circle Theatre Party, of which Frank Sinatra was the headliner. This year we are hosting an Artist-in-Residence who will be on campus to work with our students and perform throughout the year.