An Author’s Daughter Inspired Him to Make Books More Inclusive
California-based television producer Danny Jordan is used to helping other people tell their stories, but when he realized the dearth of representation for children with limb differences in picture books, he knew he would have to tell his own. “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve put my story out there,” Jordan says. “I wanted to write, illustrate, and print just one book where my daughter and I could sit and read a story with a hero who looked like her.”
After a dramatically successful Kickstarter project, Jordan is now planning and writing an entire series, The Capables, that centers on superhero kids who have disabilities. In Rae’s First Day, Rae, a 5-year-old girl with a visible limb difference, is worried about being accepted on her first day of school—and that the other kids will discover her superpower.
Repeating affirmations she learned from her father and sharing that wisdom with her new classmates, she discovers that she fits right in. When rain threatens to cancel outdoor recess, Rae knows it’s time to use her power to save the day. The story, which Kirkus Reviews points out “addresses Rae’s limb difference…couched within a superhero story that’s the real focus,” uses a comic-book style to show that any child can be a hero, regardless—or because—of their differences.
Like Rae, Jordan’s daughter was born with a visible limb difference, but while the story is personal for Jordan, he realized that he needed additional input and expertise to create an authentic story. “When you realize there’s something you don’t know and can’t ever know, you have to include people in that process,” Jordan explains, emphasizing that for a story to be inclusive, it has to start by involving representation during the creative process rather than only creating diverse characters invented by writers who may not share their characters’ experiences. That was why, when he realized how wide an audience the book would reach, he brought on an advisory board to make sure that his depiction of the character’s experience was authentic. “I didn’t know…the perspective of somebody living with a visible disability going to school for the first time,” he explains. That’s where the advisory board “helped this idea become exactly what it needed to be. Without them, it would have been entertaining. With them, it became empowering. It became authentic. It became educational. That was the mission, and I couldn’t have done that alone.”
Jordan received vital advice from friend and board member Ryan J. Haddad, who urged him to make sure that the “ ‘aha!’ powerful moments” were never delivered by a nondisabled person, because so often in stories about disability or differences, someone else is the hero. Jordan remembers Haddad saying, “You can’t understand how empowering it will be for those moments within your story to come from an individual living with a disability.”
That’s why, when Rae first engages with the others at school, she stands on her own, advocating for herself. As Rae says, both in a conversation with her father and then to her school peers:
“I am smart, I am strong, I am capable, I am a warrior.…I am different.…Some people will look at me differently, and that’s okay. We’re all different, and it’s our individual differences and experiences that make our world super.…I was born this way. And it’s our differences that make us super.”
By believing in herself, Rae opens the door for the other children to accept her, which they do immediately; the moment has dramatic impact because it puts Rae’s empowerment at the center. Jordan explains that empowerment presents through “advocacy and inclusion and accessibility and equity and pride….In the framework of Rae’s story, what causes her superpower cells or meter to rise, [allowing her to decide] to use her superpower, is that she advocates for herself.”
While Rae’s First Day is very personal for Jordan, he’s also come to realize how important it is to other families. One story that sticks out in his mind came from a father in Canada whose daughter was having a tough time feeling confident due to her own visible limb difference. The father purchased the e-book, which he cast from his iPad onto the television so that the whole family could read it together. “You can’t understand what that meant to me to see my daughter light up like that,” Jordan recalls the man writing. That’s why this mission is so important to Jordan: to know that families and kids who haven’t seen themselves represented as heroes now have the chance. Jordan stresses that people who have always seen themselves reflected by the characters in stories don’t always realize that not everyone has that same experience. When someone who has never seen themselves represented finally sees a character like them, it’s a powerful experience. “I, frankly, didn’t even know the power of that when I started working on this.” Had he known in the early days, he confesses, he might have been too intimidated to continue the project.
Luckily, Jordan has built a solid team, including illustrator Agustina Perciante, who fulfilled Jordan’s idea of creating a cinematic superhero story and melding it with Pixar sensibilities. “She took these words and she made them real,” Jordan praises.
His advisory board not only watches for authenticity in the experiences of people with different abilities, but also challenges narratives and avoids reinforcing gender norms: In early drafts, Rae’s jacket was pink but later was changed to red to avoid stereotyping; Rae’s diverse classroom reflects those in the real world; and her parents are shown participating equally in household chores. “Though it has nothing to do with the story, just seeing that…equal participation of tasks within the home is challenging narratives that may have existed in previous generations,” Jordan says.
The second book in the series is set to feature a child with dyslexia whose intersectional identity also means the story will touch on issues of race. Ensuring authentic representation is vital for Jordan’s view of the series, as is creating entertaining, educational stories where people with disabilities are the heroes. “A person with a disability is not defined by their disability,” he affirms. “It’s one part of who they are, but it’s not all of who they are.”
Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books.