Step inside the big top

“Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show continued on, one small circus winding its way through the world. What made it special was not its Freak Show, though. Not really. It was special because it was piloted by a happy family of people with dreams in their heads…Some were freaks, and some were not, but they were all doing the best that they could because, as they say, the show must go on,” — Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show, by D.S. Edwards.

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

Dan Edwards has never been afraid to follow a “good” idea, risky or not.

He once ran a coffee shop, the Mad Monkey in Raymond, because he enjoys talking with people and thought it would be neat to create a spot to socialize late

A CHARACTER WITH SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS — Dan Edwards of Bridgton used his talent as an illustrator and imagination to produce his first children’s book, “Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show,” which is now available for purchase. (Rivet Photo)

into the night and enjoy a good cup of coffee.

“It didn’t set the world on fire, but I had fun,” he said.

As an illustrator and animator, Dan finds his creative side always running in high gear, turning out new project ideas. He started a short film, but became sidetracked with “real work,” putting that project on the shelf. Originally, Dan wanted to create “something” through animation, but settled on producing a children’s book. Again, he started, but hit a detour.

“My projects are often bigger than the time I have to do them,” he said. “When I was in college, at Rochester Institute of Technology, I learned that there are a lot of options out there. It is a matter of whether you are proactive or not.”

When a friend asked him what his New Year’s resolution for 2010 would be, Dan made a commitment — he would strive to complete an illustration for his children’s book every two weeks.

“The goal was 26 illustrations, and by the end of the year, I could put a book together,” Dan said.

Finding some early investors at the Internet site, kickstarter.com, Dan put more and more of his energies into the book. In August, he reached a crossroads. He lost his job at a New York City-based web marketing company as a senior flash designer. The job had been a good fit. Dan was able to work from his Bridgton home, creating full-screen, 30 second, animated banner ads for various websites.

“When I lost the job, I asked myself, ‘Do I look for another job or take this stretch of time and throw myself into this. I took the plunge,” he said.

Six months later, the 1995 Lake Region grad saw his first attempt at being a children’s author come to fruition with the printing of 500 copies of “Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show.” The 62-page hardcover book (by D.S. Edwards — someone else had already secured Dan Edwards on the Internet) features 55 dazzling illustrations, and introduces readers to some clever but “slightly weird” circus freaks from Bix, a “one-of-a-kind” kid, to Annie, the future “bearded girl,” who has yet to display any stubble but “knows in her heart” what her claim to fame will be. The book’s reading level is about sixth grade, but Dan suspects that the illustrations will fascinate younger children.

“I had an idea where the story was going to go. It started off being a ‘Wizard of Oz’ kind of thing — a character starts out on a mission, meets three people, runs into some trouble, solves the problems and everything is okay,” Dan said.

Entering uncharted waters, Dan relied on plenty of advice offered by close friends. Former LRHS classmate Erin Whalen, who had worked in the record industry, told Dan a number of people put out their first CDs by securing upfront funding through “kickstarter.” Dan hoped to raise $5,000. It worked.

“In June, I got my funding ($4,300, after various expenses). I thought that would cover half the book, but as I got into it, I realized it would not cover half the book,” he said. “It (investors) kept me honest.”

One tool Dan used to attract attention to the project was running a “blog” on the Internet. At times, he would upload some sketches. Other times, he printed a “few blurbs.” The move paid dividends.

“I showed it (the book) to very few people. When I started the blog, I made some worldwide contacts. One guy in Denmark — the country — liked the illustrations he saw and wanted to invest in the project, and sent me $250. A guy in Los Angeles sent $600. You put up the work, explain the project, tell what inspires me, and it apparently struck a few chords with people,” he said. “I’ve even had former students of mine offer to give me $20 upfront for a copy.”

The project became overwhelming, at times.

“Sometimes, I got to a point when the project seemed insurmountable after a few months and I felt I should push it to the side. I was telling everybody that the book would be done at Halloween. When it came that time, Annika Black, the children’s librarian at the Bridgton Public Library, asked me if it was done, and I told her I was still working on it,” Dan recalled.

Dan stayed on task.

He started to draw out some of the key images he had “inside my head” through the use of a computer program.

“I knew what I wanted the villainesses to look like. I wanted a picture of them in front of the ferris wheel and big top. There are two competing circus. The protagonist goes out to find more ‘freaks’ for his circus. I knew what the bad guys were going to look like,” he said. “I had all these key images, but most of them were for the first third of the book. Then, I started to fill in the spaces. I found myself saying, ‘I need to add another drawing’ a lot.”

He often consulted his parents, Steve and Bonnie Edwards, long-time SAD 61 teachers, now in retirement.

“In talking to my parents about the project, my mom told me that I had enough drawings, but I couldn’t ignore the climax,” he said. “When I was in school, my mom would look over my essays, so it was natural for her to look over the story. We had a few differences. I would say something was a stylistic choice. She would respond, ‘No, it is grammatically incorrect,’ and I would change it.”

Friend Binaca Macdonald, who has taken a number of writing workshops and is a teacher, also read it. Dan was open to whatever changes she thought would enhance the story.

“Is it too long, too short? A couple of places, she would say she didn’t really know what I was going for. I reworked it,” he said. “It was neat to get different perspectives.”

Drawings took about 40 hours each. Dan booked three full days for each illustration. Sometimes, Dan became so engrossed in the work, he logged 15-hour days. He felt like a hermit, bound to his computer screen.

“It was fine at first because I was really passionate about what I was doing. The last few drawings, I was at a point I just wanted to get them done. You can’t really tell the difference which pictures were true labors of love and those that weren’t,” he said. “A challenge all artists face is avoiding trying to be perfect. When I subbed for Molly Mains (at Lake Region Middle School) for a quarter, I told the kids keep going with a picture until you wreck it, then you know you’ve gone too far. Who cares if you wreck it. It’s about process, at that point. On computers, you just hit ‘Undo…Undo…Undo’ until you get back to where you want to be.”

As the story evolved, so did more illustration ideas. Since there is a fortune teller in the story, Dan created 13 tarot cards as a promotional tool. He truly enjoyed seeing book characters seemingly come to life.

“I love coming up with the characters, seeing them take on a life of their own. My favorite character is the Lizard boy. I tried to bring elements of old-time cartoons. Pac-Man eyes. Mickey Mouse shorts. I love animation history. Old stuff. Things that feel timeless. Fairytale elements. Rockabilly curls,” he said.

When creating one character, Dan decided upon a familiar look — that of a long-time friend, Greg Plummer.

“He was in a band for a long time, and he would spike his hair up like an owl. He’d make the same face. When I added spikes to the little crab boy, he took on some of Greg’s personality,” he said. “Same thing with the bearded girl, Annie. One day, I was drawing Annie with a barrette, and I suddenly realized she looked like my cousin’s child, Zoe. I hadn’t looked at a picture of Zoe and come up with it. There was something ‘Zoe’ about it.”

Time soon became a factor. The printing company wanted to publish before year’s end.

“I said to myself, ‘Okay, I am going to do this. Meet that deadline. I promised people copies of the book, and it will get done.’ So, there I was proofing it on Christmas Day at my girlfriend’s family’s house, hoping to get it in the mail on time,” Dan recalled.

There would be a few more technical glitches, but the book finally reached Dan’s doorstep a few weeks ago — first, a couple of early editions followed by a bigger shipment.

Now, comes the even trickier part — sales. Dan has scheduled various book signings (see sidebar) and has made arrangements with stores to carry the book. He understands that in the end, his first venture as a published author may be a financial wash, but it’s a start.

“I believe that through this adventure, I came of age. I want to produce a series of three picture books, and see what kind of traction I get,” Dan said. “I don’t feel finished, yet. It’s not like when the bell rings at the end of the school day. Oh, it’s Christmas school break and I’m going home. I still have work to do. I’m working on an audio book. Read through the whole thing. Another friend, Andy Painter, is helping with a couple of voices. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Even if I put it out there for $1, it will be worth getting the book out in front of as many people as possible. No way am I going to make a lot of money on this. I just hope to set things up for the next one. Who knows what opportunities might come my way. Adventure, take that route, see what happens.”

Dan faces long odds of hitting it big, but he is not afraid because like his “Traveling Show” characters, he has dreams in his head and he is doing the best that he can.

“If you were to read the titles of every children’s book published out loud, it would take you 15 years. There are so many books out there. I’ve got an idea. Everybody has an idea. My hope is that through perseverance, I will make it. This book is a little off kilter and weird, but look what happened last year with Tim Burton’s version of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It made over a billion dollars,” he said. “If the right person thinks it’s interesting and puts a blurb on top of it, it might get a look from a lot more people. That’s my hope.”

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