An Interview with Peter H. Reynolds
1) Where did you get the idea for The Dot?
Well, the answer to that one is actually in two parts. I think the phrase "I can't draw" - which I have heard countless times - has always surprised me - and has inspired me. My immediate response is "You just haven't hung out with ME long enough!" I think that is what goes through any teachers or coaches mind when they hear "I can't...." It just means we have to double up on some creative ways to get there. So the theme had been brewing for years.The catalyst for The Dot book was a mark I made in my journal. I make a habit of drawing and writing - as well as reading - before I go to sleep at night. Like many of us do after a long day, I can only get a few sentences read, a few words written or the very beginning of a drawing created before I have drifted off into sleep. This one particular eve --back in 2001- in my 200 year old home in Dedham, MA, I set marker to paper and promptly feel to sleep. My Extra Fine Sanford Sharpie made contact with the white paper and began to drink in, ever so slowly, the ink. When I awoke perhaps an hour or so later, I was startled to see what my marker had left behind. A dot! A big black dot! I set the journal to one side and turned off the lamp.Well, in the light of day, as the morning sun streamed through the windows falling upon my still-opened journal, I saw the dot. It struck me that this was no ordinary dot. It was mighty impressive.What had started out as an unintentional "mistake" had ended up being a breathtaking dot! I quickly grabbed my marker and wrote "The Dot" above the dot and below I wrote "by Peter H. Reynolds." I leaned it on my mantle above the fireplace and looked at it as the weeks went by and the story of a brave girl who makes an unexpected dot came in to focus.The mission and the story had found their story. The Dot was born! The book was published by Candlewick Press in 2003.
2) How did you arrive at the main character's name, Vashti?
I was in a coffee shop in my hometown, Mocha Java, on the corner of High and Eastern. I was nestled into a favorite spot right by the bookshelf and next to the big glass window - lots of light and plenty to look at and get inspired by. I had my watercolors going - doing some art for my new book - which had a title but the main character did not yet have a name. Suddenly a girl appeared in front of me holding a dozen green carnations. She sold me one as a fundraiser for her school. I looked closer at this nine year old girl with brown hair and big brown eyes. Her skin was the color of a café latte - and she looked very much like the girl I had been drawing in my new book. The girl asked what I was doing and who the painting was for. I picked up on the hint that she wanted the painting. I told I was painting for her. Here eyes opened wide."For me?""Yes, for you."I went to sign it to her and got as far as "To...""And how do you spell your name again?," pretending that we were old friends."V-A-S-H-T-I."Wow, I thought to myself. This is her. This is my character!I gave her the painting. She left smiling. I saw her get into the old brown van that appeared to have traveled many miles. She was showing her painting to her mother and her little sister who began waving to me through the window. The van drove off. I never saw Vashti again. I wonder if I ever will?
3) What message were you trying to share with readers as you wrote the book?
My goal with The Dot is to celebrate that moment when a great teacher (or coach, or friend, or family member) can take a moment of disappointment, frustration, timidity, apprehension, and turn it around. The ability to believe in someone's talents and abilities before they can see it themselves is an art of a great human. While the book is about art, it is really a metaphor for being brave, for trying, for reaching, for experimenting, for growing. It is also a book about becoming a teacher, as Vashti became at the end of the book. The gift of great teaching can be carried forward like a torch.
4) Tell about someone who inspired you to become an author and illustrator.
My daughter, Sarah, was hungry for stories growing up. We read to her every night. She grabbed books off the shelf with zeal the way kids grab toys out of their toy box. Creating a culture at home where story is center stage is powerful. I wrote her a story in a restaurant called The Blue Shoe. It was a fanciful tale of a high heel blue shoe in search of love! I wrote it to occupy her as I chatted with a friend over dinner. I took those napkins and turned them into a book - which then became an animated film and an interactive TeleFable shared around the world. When you have someone to write for - it can be very easy - and inspirational. I wrote The Blue Shoe to delight Sarah - no editors, no agents, no publisher, no motivation other than to make something to capture her imagination.
5) Why do you always want people to "sign it" (their work)?
It is important for people to be proud of their work. Woodworkers often sign their furniture. Putting your name to your work is a way to say - "I am proud of this." It shows you care. I also remind folks to add the date when the work was finished. This is a great way to make sense of the trail of work you leave behind.
6) If you could change one thing about The Dot, what would it be?
I love it just the way it is, but when I read the book, I say the line following line before I turn the page where the line is written out:"The next week, when Vashti walked into art class, she was surprised to see what was hanging above her teacher's desk."When you're reading it aloud - it has the kids imagining what Vashti is surprised at seeing. That extra beat adds some great theatre to a group reading. That is what is great about reading a book out loud - you can be the "director" of the experience. Creative pacing can really make a book reading dynamic."
7) You dedicated The Dot to Mr. Matson. What made him such a great teacher?
He did one of the most powerful things an educator or caregiver can do -- he noticed me. He took the time to see who I was. What my interest was. He was teaching math, but he found time to pause and see what my "spark" was - and then he did something even more powerful. He connected the dots. He connected my art with math - and probably , even more powerful - he connected art, math and TEACHING. He posed this question to me on that afternoon back at McFarland Middle School in Chelmsford, MA: "Peter, can you tell a story to teach math? Look through the math textbook and find a concept that you could teach using your art and a story."I opened my math textbook and set to work.I created a comic book. I showed it to him.He paused - and pondered. He was about to show yet another sign of a great teacher."Do you know what you've done?""Huh?" I scratched my head."You've made a storyboard. This is how a filmmaker plans out a film. How would you like to turn this into an animated film?""Gosh, would I!?"Then he did yet another "great teacher" feat. He very calmly said:"I have no idea of how to make one."A sign of a great teacher: have the great idea first - figure out how to do it second. And who might know how to help you.THAT is also a 21st Century Skill. Bravely forging ahead with a vision and knowing where to find out information to map out a possible solution.Mr. Matson seemed stunned 30 years later when I tracked him down. He remembered the project, but had a pretty hard time imagining that his six minute conversation had caused a ripple effect that had landed me my first job which lead me to creating FableVision - a company dedicated to using story, technology and media to inspire and teach. His impact will continue to ripple. My wish is that all children have those "great teachers" in their lives.