Patriot Way: New England boasts children's book triumvirate

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Sunday February 5th, 2017

HOUSTON — In Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s children’s book, The Exclamation Mark, the most boisterous punctuation mark of them all has issues finding an identity. He tried to be like a period but couldn’t shake that line above his dot. He was too loud. Too awkward. Too everything. But at the end of the book he finally finds his way through an appreciation of his own unique qualities.

While a junior at the University of Georgia, Patriots rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was exploring a Barnes and Noble in Athens, working his way through timeless classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Giving Tree and then he picked up The Exclamation Point. This was Mitchell’s aha moment.

“I read the book and thought, man, I’d love to write something to inspire kids to change their lives. Reading that book changed mine,” said Mitchell this week, sitting in the ballroom of the Patriots’ team hotel.

Barnes and Noble became a regular hangout for Mitchell, who did not discover the power of books until college. Like many athletically gifted kids, Mitchell had focused on what came naturally.

“Sports dominated the culture I was in and education just seemed like something you had to do to play a sport, as sad as that sounds,” he said.

Mitchell began writing his book during his junior year. It was self-published his senior year. The Magician’s Hat tells the story of Dave, a talented magician whose greatest trick of them all is the magic of reading, a narrative that closely parallels Mitchell’s own self-discovery.

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Mitchell’s love of books was so strong, as a junior at Georgia, he joined an all-women’s book club after asking one of its members for a book recommendation in the same Barnes and Noble where he serendipitously discovered The Exclamation Point.

“A lot of important events happened in that Barnes and Noble. I really need to go back, “ Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s devotion to the power of reading has only grown stronger, and he invests much of his time and energy to his Read with Malcolm foundation, which promotes the power of books to underprivileged children. Mitchell brings even more credibility to his advocacy after being named Georgia’s Children’s Author of the Year this past June. Even as a 23-year old rookie, Mitchell has been become a role model off the field as well as within the Patriots locker room.

Earlier this year, fellow receiver Julian Edelman approached Mitchell about his second career. Edelman too wanted to write a children’s book and was on a fact-finding mission. What was the process? Just how hard was the process?

Edelman’s aha moment came during a brainstorm session with his friend, Assaf Swissa, with whom he had previously collaborated on projects. “I turned to Assaf and said, ‘why don’t we write a children’s book?’” Edelman said. “He thought it was a good idea. We came up with a squirrel as the main character because who doesn’t love squirrels? It snowballed from there.”

Published in November, Flying High tells the story of Jules, a squirrel who wants to play football but is told he’s too slow, too small and too weak. A discouraged Jules then meets a “GOAT” named Tom who offers motivating words about hard work paying off.  Jules suffers another setback but eventually works his tail off before being called into the game, handed a no. 11 jersey and scoring the winning touchdown. Then he wins a Super Bowl, grows a beard that can house its own ecosystem and creates fun Instagram videos. That last part is not true, but clearly Edelman’s Flying High is based on his own experiences.

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At a base level, Edelman wrote the book because he has a little girl (2-month old Lily) and viewed this outlet as a way to provide children something they could easily read and potentially derive some value from. On a deeper level, Edelman’s motivation comes from a world beyond the immersion of books that he and daughter will share.

“There’s a bunch of guys I’ve played with and a bunch of little kids I’ve played with that were tremendously talented and very good but went down the wrong road.“ Edelman said. “Hopefully little kids see this with the message of work hard, be relentless, chase your talent and chase your dream. It’s ok to dream.”

Joining Edelman and Mitchell in the Patriots’ children’s book club triumvirate is Renaissance man, animator, avid reader and quote-machine extraordinaire Martellus Bennett. (In his spare time, Bennett plays this little sport called football.)

Bennett’s mind of wonderment is always active, and he has poured some of the creative energy his own company The Imagination Agency.  Bennett has produced a plethora of animation, crafted music and once toyed with a series of vignettes about why he hates fantasy football. Bennett’s first children’s book, Hey A.J., It’s Saturday!, released last June, is about a girl who thinks she’s coming downstairs for breakfast but instead finds a bedazzling world of fantasy. The title character is named after Bennett’s toddler daughter, Austyn Jett Rose, and the moral of the story is true to the as the tag line: Spill your food, not your imagination.  The ever-entrepreneurial Bennett combined his animation and writing skills and produced an interactive app to complement the book.

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Of all the members of the Patriots, Bennett’s turn as a children’s author may be least surprising. For years, book advocacy has been a priority for Bennett—he has regularly volunteered to read to children be it through an NFL sanctioned program or otherwise. And his creative juices are always flowing. Virtually every sentence out of Bennett’s mouth paints a vivid picture, even when discussing something as simple as ambition.

“You can draw, you can color, you can create books—you don't have to rap, you can score a film. You can do so many different things. To be the guy that people could look to [as an] example—because we don't have that many examples... We have a ton of guys who can dribble a ball—the next Michael Jordan—you hear it all the time,” Bennett said on Media Night. “I want them to look at it and say 'oh, that's the next Obama' or 'oh, that's the next Tim Burton', 'Walt Disney', 'that's the next Shel Silverstein', or 'that's the next Dr. Seuss' but at the same time, he's just like Randy Moss. 'That's Hans Zimmerman'. Come on, now.”

Bennett should appreciate that his words have already been heeded close to home—both Edelman and Mitchell consider Shel Silverstein their favorite children’s author.

“The Patriot Way” is the notorious mantra that permeates Foxboro. While there is no official definition, most interpret it as something to the effect of do your job, don’t be a distraction and generally stay quiet. But now, with this particular roster there is one unequivocal definition of “The Patriot Way” … pick up a book. 

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