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Behind a picture book is one village girl’s journey for water

Peter Reynolds (in his Dedham studio) illustrated “The Water Princess,” the true story of a future Miss Africa who walked miles to haul water to her village. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

DEDHAM — In his small studio above Dedham Community Theater, Peter Reynolds has hundreds of journals of all shapes and sizes. They’re filled with story ideas. Nearby is a collection of his own picture books, the outcome of an ever-active imagination. The award-winning picture book writer and illustrator is known for brainstorming on napkins and index cards.

Reynolds, 55, is acclaimed for his work on dozens of books including “The North Star,” “The Dot,” “Ish,” and “Sky Color” — whimsical tales that celebrate creativity and leaving a mark on the world. “His work to me is as accessible as he is as a person,” said Ann Stott, executive art director at Candlewick Press in Somerville, which has published most of his books for years.


“I like to remind people that everyone has a story to tell,” Reynolds said. “My hope is that when you finish reading my book ‘The Dot’ that you’ll run out and buy some paper and start splashing watercolors. I want to motivate people to do — to take action.”​

In that way, “The Water Princess,” recently released by Putnam, wasn’t really a departure for Reynolds. It’s the true-life story of Georgie Badiel, a former Miss Africa and a model and activist who grew up in Burkina Faso, West Africa. In concise prose and with vibrant colorful drawings, readers get a peek into the mind of Gie Gie, a little girl, weary of waking up before the sun rises and carrying a heavy pot for miles to fetch the water needed for drinking, washing, and cooking. She calls herself Princess Gie Gie.

Reynolds finished a drawing for “The Water Princess.”Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The fantasies of this spirited child come alive against a purple sky with dots of light — if she imagines the water is near, maybe it will come The book depicts the strength and joy of African women who sing as they walk and dance when they approach the well and hear the sound of water flowing. But it also speaks to the nature of thirst:


“Every sip fills me with energy. I want to make it last, but I can’t,” Gie Gie says.

The book is dedicated to “all the women and young girls around the world who walk for miles to get water.” Proceeds will go toward building a well in Badiel’s village.

“This book speaks to the themes I’ve always been interested in: being resilient and also dreaming,” said Reynolds, who illustrated the book. It was written by Susan Verde, who lives in East Hampton, N.Y. “Dreaming is visioning. I tell kids that visioning is the ability to see something that doesn’t yet exist. . . . Someone has to start somewhere.”

Three years ago, the artist met the model at the Women in the World Summit in New York, introduced by a mutual friend who’d invited Reynolds to attend. Badiel told him of her childhood dream to bring a well to her village. Goundi is miles from water.

As a young girl, Badiel remembers the women in her family waking before the sun rose. They would walk for three hours to fetch clay-colored water every morning. They do it to this day. The water needs to be boiled before it can be used.

Badiel would carry the pot of water on her head. As she got bigger, so did the pot she balanced.


“To think of me not having water hurt me,” Badiel said in a telephone interview from New York.

Her voice still carries a heavy cadence of French, the official language of Burkina Faso.

“It was something so inside me, something I was trying to figure out. I never understand why we have to walk for so long, why the water was not close, why it was not clear.”

The book is intended for not just kids, but older audiences, too, said Reynolds. “Within six minutes you’ve just delivered a powerful message.”Lane Turner/Globe Staf

Reynolds took a year to design the book. He used watercolor on wood to create a background full of depth and texture. He did extensive research on Burkina Faso and studied photos of the village and of Badiel as a little girl. In previous books he made sure his technique didn’t seem labored over. That was intentional, he said. He wanted readers to give drawing a try.

With this book he gave it a more organic feel.

“When I saw these delicious copper brown and sandy colors emerging, it was really satisfying,” Reynolds said.

Verde used short sentences reminiscent of the way Badiel speaks:

“Our steps are light; we twirl and laugh together. The miles give us room to dance.”

“It was important to put [those elements] in the story,” Verde said, “because in spite of all these hardships and challenges there’s still an opportunity for playfulness, for joy, for hope, for community.”

That principle is one intended for older audiences, too, not just kids. “I always say that I design picture books, not children’s books,” Reynolds said. “Because when you say ‘children’s book’ people think, ‘Oh, I have to hand this to a child.’ A picture book, absolutely, hand it to a child — and also hand it to a busy adult. Within six minutes you’ve just delivered a powerful message.”


Story plays a role in his life beyond his books. Reynolds co-owns a family bookstore in Dedham called Blue Bunny Books & Toys and runs an educational media company he founded with his twin brother, Paul, called FableVision. In business for nearly 20 years, they produce animated films, books, and educational media to help students who have different learning styles, much like he did.

Reynolds was a boy who doodled in class. In seventh grade, his teacher noticed him not paying attention and asked the boy to use his art to teach the other students a math concept. Reynolds went home and created a comic book. That teacher left a lasting impact, and Reynolds dedicated “The Dot” to him.

In early September, Badiel returned to her village with “The Water Princess.” She brought the book to her grandmother. She said the old woman looked at it and smiled. Badiel had long remembered her grandmother’s response to her questions, as a child, about water. “One day I hope you’ll make a change and do something to fix this,” her grandmother used to say.

Badiel took that to heart. Part of the book advance went to the Ryan’s Well Foundation, which provides clean water projects in Africa.

Now, she just wants to see a well in Goundi.


“Knowing that water filling a bucket almost 5,000 miles away is happening daily because of a chance meeting is hard to comprehend,” Reynolds said. “It reminds me that these moments for change are around us when we least expect them. We just have to be ready to see them.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.