Whether he is busy at FableVision inventing new ways to inspire children to just start, or enlightening people at his Reynolds Centre for Teaching, Learning and Creativity, or building a community center with his Blue Bunny bookstore, Peter Reynolds is doing what he does best, CREATING.
A couple of months back, my son came home with a request from his kindergarten teacher to capture the colours of the sky at various times of the day. She had read the story Sky Colour by Peter Reynolds and wanted to help her students experience a bit of the story. I thought this was a clever idea. Not having heard the story before, I quickly went out to my neighbourhood bookstore get my own copy. It was a unique pleasure to read his work and begin a poetry project of our own as a result of his inspiring words. Peter Reynolds is truly an ambassador for creativity.
We invited Peter to tell us more about where it all started and where he feels it is all going. Here is what we discovered.
Thinking back to when you were five years old, what did you want to be when you grew up? When did that change to story-teller?
I was asked by Major Mudd, a television show broadcast in Boston when I was a kid, what I wanted to be and I responded, “A firetruck.”
Fortunately, I broadened my horizons and started a newspaper with my twin brother, Paul in first grade.
That lit the publishing fuse for me.
They say we all need champions to succeed. Who was the single-most significant person along your journey to success?
There are quite a few people who I thank for inspiring me. I was blessed with a great family, some great teachers, but two people who taught me how to balance creativity and business were Tom Snyder and Rick Abrams. Tom was a master teacher who pioneered technology in the classroom, but never forgot the magic of storytelling, human connections, and communication. Rick navigated the financial waters, allowing our team of creatives to build Tom Snyder Productions, all with a sense of mission and fun. Once you experience that, it is hard to settle for anything less wonderful. I built my company, FableVision on those ideals–inspired by both Tom and Rick.
What do you think was the turning point in your career as a writer/illustrator?
Having a daughter. Sarah was a delightful and demanding customer. I wanted to create stories for her, but not just to make her laugh or entertain her. I wanted to protect her on her journey through school and life. I feared she would get steamrolled by well-meaning adults who knew just the perfectly wrong thing to say to squash her creativity and spirit. My book, The North Star sprung out of that mission.
We named our blog “Words on a Limb” because we felt that writing, or illustrating for that matter, makes us vulnerable and often puts us out there for readers to evaluate. Tell us about a time in your career when you’ve felt you were out on a limb.
I love that. Out on a limb. That is where the fruit grows, right? I agree it can be a scary place though. Starting out, I had a manuscript for The North Star which I shopped around, but no publisher knew what to do with a 120 page picture book aimed at kids, but also adults at the same time. It was a picture book–not a children’s book. SO… I went out on a limb and, with the help of my dear friend, Bill Churchill, (another mentor who was born into a family of media makers!) I self-published 2000 copies of the book. That was 1997 before digital publishing, so it was very expensive to print and ship. One day, a truck pulled up with many, many boxes! As it turned out, we sold out of them shortly and reordered several times. It got the book out there and Candlewick Press noticed it which lead me to illustrate The Judy Moody series, The Dot, Ish, Sky Color, among other books. We also published The North Star in a slightly shorter form: 60 pages!
At peterhreynolds.com, you give readers some insight into your process. You indicate it takes about 18 months to go from idea to bookshelf. How has the industry changed since you began as a writer? How has it changed your ‘process’?
Funny enough, with traditional publishers it still is about 18 months. The industry in some ways has not really changed. Obviously digital publishing has allowed many new voices to the industry, but the thinking, writing, editing, illustrating still takes months and months. Distribution is really the place that has eliminated the months of printing, shipping, warehousing, reseller shipping, etc.
As for my process, the older I get, the more I love my pencil, ink pen, sketchpad and watercolors. Coming up with a good story is still the domain of the creative mind. There are some cyborgs who probably would argue with me on that. Creative human minds need time and freedom to think. I have been very conscious of reclaiming my sacred quiet time to hear myself think. I had plenty of that twenty years ago!
Tell us a little about the genesis of FableVision. Where do you see it going? How has it changed from your original intention?
After twelves years at Tom Snyder Productions, I teamed up with brother, Paul to create a media company that explored learning wherever it happened—not just in schools. We actually decided to start the venture over a taco burrito at the Taco Bell in the Watertown Arsenal Mall food court. It was just one of those “aha!” moments. It felt right, so we started to vision a studio. After seventeen years, and moving to the top floor of the Boston Children’s Museum, it is has broadened its production from just animated stories in the early days to interactive trans-media development. We are expanding now into TV, having hired Tone Thyne whose career includes Disney and Little Red Airplane.
We love your “Make your mark” dictum – how did it come about, what do you want to communicate through your words?
I appreciate you saying so. It is a cornerstone of my work. I love the idea of making things. There’s a LOT of consuming things nowadays. What I want is people CREATING things. I want to encourage people of all ages to have wonderful ideas. I want them to be brave and let the world hear their voice. Making your mark also means, in my mind, to have a positive impact on the world we share. In the book, The Dot, Vashti’s teachers says, “Make your mark and see where it takes you.” It is the ripple effect of your actions that I hope to inspire.
We know it’s like asking who your favourite child is, but what do you prefer, writing or illustrating? What came first for you?
That is actually an easy one. I think in images. I jot the idea and story down in pictures. I’ll add captions after.
What were you like in grade school? What traits do you still hold on to as an adult?
In second grade, I decided I’d had enough, so I just walked out the door and walked the mile home. I think that might have been an indication that I wanted to carve my own unique path. I might have been hungry too, I forget. For the most part, I made it through school just fine, doodling all the way. Some teachers were not too keen on that, but the ones that saw that art and story were what grabbed me—those teachers are the ones I remember most vividly.
We love the book “Someday” that you illustrated for Alison McGhee. How is working on another author’s book different from illustrating your own story?
I can’t read that book very often, but when I do, I love it. I’m glad you do too. The biggest challenge is to get in the mind of the other person and try to make my vision match with their own. Sometimes it can be very different. That can actually be a great part of the process – and it can also be exhausting. When I am writing and illustrating, all that goes away. I control the horizontal and the vertical of the little film I am producing in my head. I construct character and scenes that are in my wheelhouse making it a lot easier for the story to flow.
We’ve read that nearly a quarter of book sales are digital and you are quite an innovator. What are your feelings on the proliferation of ebooks vs. paper and brick and mortar stores? How does this change your approach to creating stories for children? Maybe animated books for tablets?
Tablet-based, interactive stories for kids are more like a toy whereas a picture book is more akin to a teddy bear. There is a place for both, but the emotional connection to the physical book is stronger. Great brick and mortar stores are “community centers.” The more we isolate ourselves with technology, the more we will need places where kindred spirits scan gather and connect. Buying a book is only part of the process, the magic comes in connecting with other human beings. Can you tell I am a fan of bookstores? So much so, I have one of my own that I started in 2003! Come visit my hometown of Dedham, MA and hop on in to The Blue Bunny.
How do you incorporate authentic learning into your books? Is it part of your plan at the outset, or does it develop as you create?
It really is not a conscious plan. There are just ideas about the human experience, the wisdom needed to navigate that journey, that I want to explore and share.
What piece of wisdom would you pass on to a young Peter Reynolds?Be brave.
Find your voice.
Dream and do.
Keep going. Never stop.
Ok, you are on a deserted island, what are five things you must have?
A pen, paper, a cup, a cargo container of English breakfast tea – and a human, although a good hammock might be nice.
If a young writer said, I want a career just like Peter Reynolds, how would you advise this young upstart?
Dive in! The water is fine! You can start in the shallow end if you’d like. Write every day, even just a word or a drawing in a journal. Join the school newspaper. Create your own magazine. Don’t wait around to get invited. Relax and let it flow. Read my book: “ISH.” Also, study—and at least appreciate—mathematics. Storytelling relies on logic.
You have received numerous awards for your contributions to literature. Which award is the most meaningful to you?
The Dot received The Irma Black Award bestowed by Bank Street College. The recognition is for a book in which text and illustrations are inseparable, each enhancing and enlarging on the other to produce a singular whole. I love that children are the final judges of the winning book.
What are some causes that you support that would interest our readers? How can we get more information?
I love any program that involves literacy, like Reading Is Fundamental, or groups helping kids realize their full potential, like Horizons National. We started our own not-for-profit called The Reynolds Center for Teaching, Learning and Creativity.
Finally, Malcolm X said that the future belongs to those who prepare for it today. What can we expect in your career and at FableVision and how are you preparing for that future today?
Great question! I have lots more books and films on the way, but I’d like to expand The Dot Club as a way for creative people to find each other and feel supported. If you visit, you will see that one of the exciting projects, continuing to grow each year, is International Dot Day. Over two million teachers and students have participated over the last few years.
The way I prepare for the future is to keep curious, to do what I love and love what I do, and “connect the dots” with kindred spirits.
I also take the advice I give everyone on the creative journey:
“Keep going! Never stop!”
With a simple, witty story and free-spirited illustrations, Peter H. Reynolds entices even the stubbornly uncreative among us to make a mark – and follow where it takes us.
Her teacher smiled. “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.”
Art class is over, but Vashti is sitting glued to her chair in front of a blank piece of paper. The words of her teacher are a gentle invitation to express herself. But Vashti can’t draw – she’s no artist. To prove her point, Vashti jabs at a blank sheet of paper to make an unremarkable and angry mark. “There!” she says.
That one little dot marks the beginning of Vashti’s journey of surprise and self-discovery. That special moment is the core of Peter H. Reynolds’s delicate fable about the creative spirit in all of us.
Peter on YouTube:
Enjoy other books by Peter H. Reynolds:
We want to give Peter a great big thanks for sharing his story, including all the tireless efforts he is putting forth to entertain, help, inspire and teach children from all over, one dot at a time.
We feel priviledged to have made this valued connection with you Peter. I want to wish you great fortune in all your future plans to change the world, and thank you for inspiring my son to be his creative best (read my son’s poem here).