Peter H. Reynolds’s life changed in seventh grade. A dreamy kid, he didn’t always find it easy to focus on subjects like math. (His Happy Dreamer is an ode to kids like him with ADHD.) But a perceptive teacher “changed my life with one conversation,” says Reynolds, when he suggested the budding artist draw a story to show a math concept. The rest is history, strewn with years of best-selling books like Ish and The Dot, the latter of which he dedicated to this math teacher, Mr. Matson.
The uniting theme in Reynolds’s body of work is acceptance—for who you are and how you express yourself. In his world of stories, it’s all good. His latest book, the charmingly illustrated The Word Collector, about a boy who collects words and discovers poetry when they get jumbled, is a joyous celebration of words. “Reach for your own words,” Reynolds urges the reader. “Tell the world who you are and how you will make it better.”
When he’s not writing books, Reynolds is otherwise building a community of words and creativity. With his identical twin brother, Paul, he runs both an independent bookshop, The Blue Bunny, in Dedham, Massachusetts, and a children’s media company, FableVision. He started a kids’ literary and art magazine, Hutch, in 2008 through his nonprofit, the Reynolds Center for Teaching, Learning, and Creativity, and he hosts regular publication parties. Reynolds also visits schools as often as possible. “I love that I am helping to do the same for others as [Mr. Matson] did for me. Great teaching has a ripple effect.”
Q | At the end of The Word Collector, Jerome, who has painstakingly collected words, pours them into the world to share with others. What is the message?
A | It’s a dramatic scene, for sure. All that hard work thrown to the wind! I wanted to take the audience’s breath away and make the point that sharing your words with the world is an epic gesture. Possessing an impressive vocabulary but never sharing your ideas is a sad waste of a powerful resource.
Q | The Dot, about a girl who thinks she can’t draw, inspired International Dot Day, when 10 million teachers and students “make their mark.” Are you amazed that this idea inspired such a worldwide outpouring?
A | Ironically, it mirrors the story of the book: bravely making one little dot that blossoms and keeps on giving. That little book, published 15 years ago, just keeps rolling along, picking up steam as it goes. I am truly stunned by the success of Dot Day. It tells me the world is hungry for inspiration.
Q | International Dot Day has also become about making a positive mark in the world. What are some of your favorite school or community projects?
A | The challenge of “How will you make your mark?” really gets students thinking, How will I use my talents, experience, energy, and time to make the world a better place? One project that sticks in my memory is when students went to a nursing home and got residents to paint dots while sharing “dot moments” from their life stories.
Q | Was Ish, in which a boy realizes it’s more important to express himself than to make something “perfect,” based on a personal experience?
A | I had a terrific teacher, Doug Kornfeld (I dedicated the book to him), who broke my confusion about trying to make art other people like. He asked if I had ever drawn just for me. It was a big and deep question that challenged me to rethink what I had been taught.
My other “ish” moment was when my friend and mentor, Aldo Servino, saw me painting a mural using a wooden yardstick to make straight lines. He broke the yardstick over his knee, and said, “You won’t be needing this!” Then, he tied a pencil to the end of a broom and sketched on the wall. I instantly understood that loose lines had life and energy. My attempt to squish the life from the line was draining my art. “You must be uncareful,” he added. Wow. No adult had told me to be “uncareful” in making art, but it made so much sense.
Q | You wrote Happy Dreamer for kids like you, who have a tough time focusing. What’s your advice for teachers struggling to work with these kids?
A | Embrace any clue that helps you know your students better. Loosen the reins, and be okay with some of the stuff you don’t understand. Most of all, work with students’ energy. Harness the creativity. Allow kids different ways to express what they’re learning.
Q | Between school visits and your bookstore, is much of your time spent interacting with kids?
A | I love meeting my readers! School visits are incredibly fun. And I spend lots of time in my bookshop meeting families, teachers, and students. I spend about 30 percent of my days connecting and responding to my readers, and as much of the rest of the time as I can writing and drawing.
Q | Can you talk about your collaborations with authors?
A | I’ve done quite a few books—Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody series, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Plant a Kiss—where the publisher has been the “matchmaker.” I’ve done a bunch of books with my cosmic twin, Susan Verde (I Am Peace, The Museum), after we met at a writers’ conference. I read her poetry and told her I’d be jealous if anyone else illustrated her book ideas! And I’ve collaborated with my real twin, Paul, on four books, including Going Places.
Q | What’s coming up for you?
A | I’m finishing up a sequel to Happy Dreamer and The Word Collector titled Say Something. Besides a couple of “top secret” book projects on my desk, I’ve also got a journal packed with future book ideas—about 400 of them. I’ve been working on a middle-grade chapter book, as well as a fable for adults. And I’m interested in expanding my storytelling platform to stage, TV, and film, which are all interesting forms to me. Any way I can connect to an audience and make them think, feel, and leave inspired—sign me up!
Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images