Children are naturally creative, especially very young children, and many parents, teachers and other adults are eager to provide them with art supplies like crayons, paints, markers and more to encourage that creativity.
But Peter Reynolds, the New York Times bestselling creator of books including “The Dot,” “Ish,” and “The Word Collector,” would like adults to take that encouragement a step further.
“If want our kids to be creative, we have to be creative. We have to model creativity, show them what it looks like,” said Reynolds, who will be in Washington Friday, March 6, as the featured author and speaker at The Missourian’s 20th annual Family Reading Night.
Reynolds will read his newest picture book, “Be You!” which Missourian Book Editor Chris Stuckenschneider describes as “a call to action to be the best version of ourselves.”
The book, due to be released March 3, is marketed for children, but the message is appropriate for people of all ages, Reynolds told The Missourian.
“My message will be as much for the grownups in the room as the kids,” he said. “I’ll definitely be talking to everyone in the room, but in some ways, I’ll be talking to the adults even more, because I’m only going to spend a day in your town, and then I’m leaving them in charge of carrying the creative torch forward.”
Reynolds, who lives in Dedham, Mass., just outside of Boston, dedicated “Be You!” to “Stefani Germanotta and who she became.” If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you may know Stefani by her stage name, Lady Gaga.
Reynolds has never met her before, but said “Be You!” mirrors her mission as a musical artist.
“Lady Gaga is such an original,” he said. “I was trying to think who really lives that ‘Be You!’ philosophy and she not only lives it, but encourages other people to.”
Reading “Be You!” feels like a gift, and Reynolds said that’s exactly how he envisioned it. Inside the book, one of the early pages even features a gift tag image with “To . . .” and “From . . . .”
“My unofficial tagline for the book is ‘A Handbook for Amazing Human Beings,’ ” said Reynolds, “and I felt like, obviously we want our kids and everyone in our lives to be healthy and happy and to have a fulfilled, amazing journey. Easier said than done, right?
“We send them to school and try to give them good experiences, but in the end you need a couple of good messages to say, ‘Be true to yourself, be curious . . . ’ and I thought, I’d love to put them all together as a gift.”
The result is a book of wisdom that Reynolds hopes will help people when they feel challenged.
“Wisdom usually is earned through challenges and hard times. We learn the most is when we have been challenged. But if you can bottle that wisdom and share it with other people, you may help them at least be able to cope better when times get tough.
“Ultimately we are trying to be ourselves, be individuals, be our own thinkers. And that’s not easy,” said Reynolds. “I really wanted to point out in this book that being you does take effort. It takes time, it takes persistence, and it won’t be easy at times, but if you surround yourselves with people who get you and love you, you will power through.”
Math Teacher Connects the Dots
Reynolds credits his seventh-grade math teacher, Mr. Matson, with daring him to “make his mark,” as Reynolds wrote in the dedication of “The Dot.”
It was around 1972, and Matson challenged Reynolds to use his art to explain a math concept. That experience has led to everything Reynolds has done in his career — to all of his books, as well as the company, Fable Vision, that he founded 22 years ago with his twin brother, Paul.
“We have 35 full-time artists, writers and programmers all focused on telling positive stories and missions to help make the world a better place,” said Reynolds. “We team up with Jim Henson productions, the Smithsonian, publishers, health organizations . . .
“That is what I do, as well as picture books, but I can trace it all back to that seventh-grade math class.
Reynolds had been doodling in class that day, and Mr. Matson told him to stay after class. He expected to be punished or at least reprimanded for drawing during class. That was the typical response all of his teachers up to that point.
“I was the day-dreamer,” said Reynolds. “Teachers felt I wasn’t paying attention. They would say things like, ‘Focus,’ ‘Pay attention,’ ‘Eyes up front,’ ‘Do that after class,’ ‘Do that on your own time, Mr. Reynolds.’ There were lots of variations on that. Basically the message was, ‘Your art is not welcome. Your creativity is not welcome. Your thinking is not welcome.’ ”
But that day Mr. Matson surprised Reynolds. He “connected the dots,” Reynolds said.
“He said, ‘I notice you love to draw, and you have a great imagination; you are a storyteller. How would you like to use your art and your storytelling to teach math to other kids?’
“Wow! I’m not in trouble,” Reynolds recalled thinking. “And did he just mention art and storytelling in the same sentence as math?
“Of course the other powerful word he used in that sentence was ‘teach,’ ” said Reynolds. “No teacher had asked me to teach before.”
He ended up creating a comic book to teach math and brought it in to show Mr. Matson.
“He takes a look at it very quietly and says, ‘Do you know what you’ve done? . . . It’s a storyboard. That’s what a filmmaker uses to plan out a film. How would you like to make an animated film?’ ”
Then Mr. Matson surprised him again. When Reynolds said he would very much like to make an animated film, Mr. Matson said he didn’t know how to do that.
“That turned out to be a pretty powerful lesson, because he was a teacher who said he didn’t know something. I had never met a teacher who didn’t have all the answers,” said Reynolds. “Here was a grown up saying, ‘I have an idea, and I don’t know how to get it done.’ But he said, ‘We’ll find someone who does.’ ”
And they did. Mr. Matson took Reynolds to meet the media teacher at the high school, Jim Morrow, who taught them how to make an animated film and went on to become Reynolds’ mentor.
Reynolds describes that entire experience as “transformational.” It went beyond that one project.
“My math teacher connected the dots from what my talent and my interest was to what his interests were,” said Reynolds. “He also gave me a sense of purposeful learning.
“From that point on, I started thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if I can use my art in science, could I use it in history? I started connecting my art and storytelling and creativity to my schoolwork, and it made it a lot more engaging for me.
“I definitely became a better student because of that,” said Reynolds, who said that although he was never diagnosed with ADHD, he exhibited a lot of those traits as a young student.
His book “The Happy Dreamer” is sort of auto-biographical.
“I was quite happy dreaming,” said Reynolds. “Read that book and you’ll know more about me.”
‘Ish’ Is His Current Favorite
Reynolds is the author/illustrator of more than 65 books, some of which have been translated into more than 25 languages around the world.
For a long time, Reynolds said his favorite of his books was “The Dot,” about a young girl who thinks she can’t draw only to be challenged by her teacher to “make a mark and see where it takes you.”
These days, though, he’s really proud of “Ish,” sequel to “The Dot” which shares a message that “thinking ish-ly is far more wonderful than getting it right.” In other words, things are often better and more interesting when they are not perfect.
Reynolds said the stories that he’s heard from people about how “Ish” helped children stop being so critical of their own work.
“When you start getting critical, then you stop being creative,” he said.
Storytelling Is the Most Powerful Technology
Reynolds, who comes from a family of seven, said both of his parents, although they were accountants by trade, were creative in different ways.
“My mother loved crafting and books, and my father loved gardening and woodworking, and he would build bookshelves for my mom to fill with books,” said Reynolds. “We were also immigrants, so we had all these stories from other lands.”
His father was born in Argentina and served in Egypt during World War II. His mother was born in Britain and was in London when it was being bombed. One grandmother was from Scotland, and a grandfather was from New Zealand.
“I call us the journey family,” said Reynolds. “The dinner table was really important to us, and sharing stories was just what we did. That became very much who I am.
“I know that story is powerful. It is probably the most powerful technology that we have in existence. I haven’t met any application or device that does it better than stories.
“When I’m talking to a group of kids, I can be talking to 1,000 kids, kindergarten through eighth-grade all in one gymnasium, and it can get a little noisy, but the minute I start telling a story, you can hear a pin drop.
“That to me is the power of story,” said Reynolds. “Suddenly we are around that camp fire, and it’s primal. The storyteller is the leader and is about to take you on this amazing journey, and you want to be taken.
“That is the power of great books. We can take kids of any ages on the most amazing journeys.”
‘I’m a Change Maker’
Through his company Fable Vision, Reynolds does so much more than just write and illustrate books, which is why some people describe him as a creativity guru. However, he describes himself to children as “a change maker.”
“ That’s my job, to create positive change,” he said. “I do it using story and art. Yes, I’m an artist, and yes, I’m a storyteller. I am an activist really, trying to activate people’s creativity for the betterment of the world.”
His workspace, called The Sanctuary, is filled with books and art supplies, but also plants and a piano.
“It’s a peaceful space,” said Reynolds, noting it’s not far from his home.
But that’s not the only place he likes to work. He can and does work anywhere, often doodling on a napkin or jotting down ideas in a notebook as they come to him.
“I love working in restaurants and cafes. I enjoy the buzz and energy of other people,” he commented.
‘Be a Reader!’
“Be a Reader!” is the theme for this year’s Family Reading Night.
The free event will be held Friday, March 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Washington Middle School.
The program will begin earlier this year in the gymnasium where Reynolds will read his new book, “Be You!”, and give a presentation on creativity.
After Reynolds’ presentation, children and families can visit their choice of reading rooms, where they can hear books read aloud by community leaders and local high school students, or tap into their own creativity in a maker space, where a variety of materials will be set out for them to use in creating anything they can imagine.
Volunteers from school PTO groups will be on hand to encourage and help children as needed.
As always, the finale of Family Reading Night will be a performance by members of the Washington Police Department. This year’s story will be “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
After the performance, children will have the chance to win baskets of books donated by local organizations, businesses and individuals. Children who visit two or more of the reading rooms will be entered into the drawing.
Last year, 66 baskets of books were given away. This year, the goal is send 100 baskets, buckets and bags of books home with the children, said Dawn Kitchell, chair of the Family Reading Night committee and The Missourian’s educational services director.
Anyone who would like to donate a book basket can drop them off at Washington Public Library or Neighborhood Reads Bookstore before March 6.
Neighborhood Reads at 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington is offering a discount on books purchased for baskets. Get more information in the store.
For additional questions on donating a basket of books to Family Reading Night, contact Penny Heisel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name and address of the donor on the basket.
‘One More Page’
The primary goal of Family Reading Night has always been to encourage families to spend time reading together on a regular basis, so in the days leading up to the event, families who read together for 15 minutes each day for seven days can document their reading on a Family Reading Log and enter it into a drawing to win prizes.
Family Reading Logs will be distributed to many schools. The reading log is available online at emissourian.com. and at Neighborhood Reads. The Family Reading prizes are sponsored by the Washington High School Football Team and Washington NEA.
New this year, families will be encouraged to continue documenting their reading throughout the year for a new initiative, “One More Page,” led by the Community Literacy Foundation and The Missourian to establish the community as “the best read community in America.”
“This year’s Family Reading Night celebrates 20 years of promoting the importance of reading together, so it’s a perfect time to measure our progress,” Kitchell said. “We are really excited to be launching a challenge to the community served by our newspaper to share reading in a collective tally.”
Kitchell said details on the “One More Page” initiative will be announced at Family Reading Night.
Family Reading Night is sponsored by The Missourian, School District of Washington and Washington Optimist Club.
Additional support is provided by Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of New Haven, Washington High School football team, Washington NEA, Washington Public Library, Neighborhood Reads Bookstore and more than 100 volunteers.