An Interview on the Making of “Beyond Us”

Last week, the Pegasus Springs Education Collective hosted its summer leadership institute, Building Our Leaders of Tomorrow (BOLT) at Walt Disney World, and we were thrilled that educator and author Aaron Polansky presented at the closing ceremony about his new book, Beyond Us. Joining Aaron was the book’s talented illustrator, high school student Rin Rezendes. After the institute, we were able to ask Aaron and Rin to talk a little more about their collaboration.

PSEC: Tell us how this book came about. What was the inspiration?

Aaron: I was sitting at my dining room table when one of my daughters asked me for fifty dollars to go shopping with her friends. We have six children and aren’t in a position to spend money like that. I asked her what she wanted to buy. She said she wasn’t sure, but that she just did not want to be the kid without any money when they went to the mall. She suggested we could go back to the mall and return what she bought once she got home. My heart sunk in my chest — I thought about how much pressure students, and even adults, feel to fit in. It elicited thoughts about racism, antisemitism, religious persecution, homophobia, transphobia, and more. Beyond Us was born from the idea that actions based in hope and love can allow us to bring people together.

PSEC: Overall, how would you both describe the book?

Rin: This book is about not being ashamed for being you and having your own struggles. To show that meaning, I tried my hardest to present a diverse cast of characters. I even sought out friends and family to ask, “Who am I missing?”

Aaron: Beyond Us is a testament to the power of kindness and seeing beyond the surface. We have more in common with people than we may realize. If we look for the positive, we are destined to find it.

PSEC: Aaron, can you talk to us about how and when the idea came about for Rin to be the illustrator?

Aaron: Rin wasn’t very talkative when I first met him — he hid behind his hair and projected a very lonely persona. When I sensed something similar in my daughter, I thought about the fact that we all struggle. The story was created in an effort to show Rin the power of his skill. I say skill and not talent, because he has worked so hard to hone his craft, and has corrected me as he’s become increasingly comfortable during our discussions. Rin has evolved in ways I never imagined possible during the course of this project.

PSEC: Rin, how did you go about doing the illustrations? What medium did you use for the illustrations?

Rin: Mr. Polansky and I met and storyboarded the whole book. He gave me some suggestions for the pages, but wanted me to have creative freedom. I would either sketch out the pages on a piece of paper or on my Cintiq tablet. If it was a traditional sketch, I would scan it into my computer to digitize and finalize everything. I used a program called Paint Tool SAI. My drawing tablet is a Wacom Cintiq.

PSEC: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Rin: I want people to be more open-minded, especially because I am horribly judged by peers for something I can’t change. I hope this book makes us realize we have differences and struggles that make us unique, and we should never be ashamed for those things. As someone who has struggled with so much self-hatred, I don’t want anyone to feel like that.

Aaron: Everyone has value. We have the ability to impact the world beyond us in ways we never imagined. Rin went from silent to speaking; from stolid to smiling; and from timid to confident. He is already impacting others. My hope is that my own children, other students, and even adults, will find their passion, purpose, and potential to impact others through positivity.

PSEC: In what ways has the creation of the book impacted each of you?

Rin: Having to meet deadlines required a lot of responsibility. This opportunity has opened so many doors for me. I definitely can’t believe I did this all as a junior in high school. In middle school, I always dreamt of illustrating a book or comic. I had no idea that I would be doing this only a few years later.

Aaron: Seeing the finished project feels incredible. If the only benefit is Rin’s growth and the opportunity for him to be paid for his efforts as he jumpstarts a career, I’ll sleep well at night. I would love for Rin to sit across from someone like Ellen Degeneres or Oprah Winfrey to bring his message to the bigger stage. He deserves it, and the world deserves it. Love and hope are powerful resources. The world is in need of both right now.

PSEC: Rin, it seems like a great opportunity and such a wonderful accomplishment to now be an illustrator for a published book. What are your plans for the future? And what have you learned from the experience?

Rin: I have more resources to do things now. I hope to continue as an illustrator. It has actually inspired me to start working on a comic I’ve been thinking about for a few years! I’ve only been doing studies and character concept art, but I’m really hoping to start working on the project soon. I won’t share any details since I’m still working on the story. I’ve also made a species and many character designs for that species. I really want to make a mystery box collectible figurine series with to accompany the artwork.

PSEC: Aaron, what has this collaboration taught you?

Aaron: This collaboration has been so rewarding. Every student deserves to find a passion-project that can fuel their future. We need to challenge our students to move beyond their comfort zones. We must provide our students with a foundation of trust, love, and passion. When we do, anything is possible.

Thank you so much, Aaron and Rin! You can purchase your own copy of Beyond Us here, and find a PDF version of this interview here.

Aaron Polansky is an educator and author who lives an hour south of Boston with his wife Rhonda, six children, and two dogs. His interests include kayaking, fishing, NCAA and Olympic wrestling, food, music, and spending time with family and friends. Aaron speaks nationwide on a multitude of topics including school culture, leadership, connection, and personal development. Learn more at Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaronpolansky.

Rin Rezendes is a 17-year-old high school student who lives with his older sister Krystal, his parents, Nancy and Marty, his dogs, Milton and Mabel, and his cats, Kimchi and Minkie, in southern Massachusetts. Rin enjoys drawing, making jewelry, and baking. Rin aspires to be a comic artist, fashion model, and designer.