A Conversation with Ann Hassett,By Peg Glisson

When I reached Ann Hassett, she was at her desk in a small K-8 school in Maine, easing back in to the opening of the school year.

Tell me a bit about yourself. . . As an educator? As author?

I’ve been in education for 32 years; I’m not sure I should admit that! I started as a high school teacher. John and I moved to Maine 27 years ago. We had sold our first book shortly before moving. I couldn’t get a high school teaching position here but was offered a long-term substitute job in kindergarten. Thankfully there was an excellent kindergarten teacher next door! A first grade opening came up and I took it. I LOVED first grade! Our children were about those ages and it seemed a good fit.

I needed certification for that level so I did graduate work at Lesley to become a Literacy Specialist. I had to train for a long time. One of my teachers at Lesley was Irene Fountas; the Fountas and Pinnell levels were “gospel.” I love that Level D is now on one of my books!

Eventually I was encouraged to work in administration; again I did a high school stint and now am in my fourth year as Principal of this K-8 building. Part of my work is teaching about literacy in our district, last year on the secondary level and this year for elementary, so it all comes together. It helps to have experience on both levels.

John worked as a cartoonist and did some comic strips. When our first daughter was born, we wrote something together and have created books together ever since.

What led to the creation of Come Back, Ben?

John had a conversation with a boy when we were at a party about floating into the air. He told me about the conversation and as he talked, we thought maybe we could make it into a book. It could be a fun little story, about an adventure.

What were the biggest challenges in writing Come Back, Ben? Did you aim for a certain reading level?

We didn’t consciously write it to be an early reader. We wrote wondering what would a 5-year-old think about, floating into the sky. What would it be like? What would it feel like? As we wrote, it was very much about the story. It wasn’t until after John had done the pictures that I looked at it through the eyes of a reading teacher and realized that the vocabulary and sentence structure as well as the plot of the story were just right for beginning readers. There are only 148 words total and only 33 different words! We hadn’t sold to Holiday House before and when we submitted it to them, we weren’t aware of the I Like to Read series. It was happenstance. Grace (Maccarone, Holiday House Executive Editor) recognized it as a good story.

What do you think is key in a book for emergent readers?

The story. It has to be a good story. Kindergarten and pre-Kindergarten kids are just beginning to read print, but their minds are so much further ahead. Their ability to imagine and to think is so alive and vibrant. A lot of cognitive energy goes into learning to read. Good stories help keep the brain free to imagine. Stories with a pleasant surprise and the invitation to use one’s imagination are not only what children want to read independently, they are important for children’s cognitive development. Good stories with good illustrations allow them to want to drink in everything on the page, including the words.

Knowing children, and about children, is also key. My background of years of working with children helps. I think I unconsciously build that in when we write.

Anything drive you crazy about books for beginning readers?

The ones that put vocabulary ahead of the story.

You use repetition in some of your other books—is that for new readers?

No, it’s a story structure that comes naturally to us. I like the way it builds a story. It’s not there as a tool for readers, although children do like it when there is repetition. They love to shout it out with you when you read aloud.

What do you hope readers will come away with from Come Back, Ben?

I hope they have enjoyed the fun adventure and are busy imagining where his sister might go. I hope they liked it so much, they will want to read it again—and other books, too. I want them to love reading, to love words.

What’s it like to work with your husband? Which comes first, the text or a picture that sparks an idea? Does John help with the text or is he strictly the artist?

We work together on the writing. A kernel for a story can come from either one of us. Sometimes it comes from something someone else tells us, like Cat Up a Tree. A cousin told us about some cats being stuck in a tree and we went from there. Sometimes ideas come from writing exercises we do. It’s always a lot of work. The words have to be precise in a picture book. It’s like writing poetry in a way, in that each word is so important. Some days, only one word ends up being done.

John does all the art. My art ability is very limited. I can draw stick figures! I used to tell my students about halfway through the year that they all drew better than I did.

How do you structure your writing time, especially with your full-time job?

We do a lot of working independently, like the parallel play that kids do, and then we come together to talk and compare. Living in the same house helps! We do a lot of work in the summer. And we walk and talk a lot—not after 8 PM, though! We don’t want to get too stirred up before bed.

I tend to be quick with an idea, asking “What do you think?” but I don’t necessarily see it through. John sticks with something and puts in long hours day to day. He has the time to do that. Our strengths and challenges match well.

Anything in the works right now?

We have some finished books but we haven’t placed them yet. For years we worked with Walter Lorraine at Houghton and he would buy whatever we made. Publishing is a very different world now. What we have ready now are picture books, not books for beginning readers. We’re not ruling out doing more of those; in fact, we’d like to do another imaginative, lively story about Ben. We’re wondering what Ben’s next adventure might be.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

We just finished a kayaking trip. John’s a birder and I knit. We spend time with our grown daughters and with our families. We’re not native Mainers, but we do have some family in Maine and more in nearby states.

Did you have certain titles you used again and again in your classroom? How did you encourage reading in your school?

I often turn to Robert McClosky’s books; he is one of my favorite author/illustrators. And of course, some of his books are set in Maine. He captured it in words and pictures.

I read every week to the kindergartners and first graders. I’m looking at my bookshelves; but the shelves of books for them are empty because, of course, I returned them to the library last June! I do often ask the children if I’ve read a book to them before since I do have favorites. If they say yes, I say, “It’s worth reading again!” The books I choose have rich stories.

I love the books by P.D. Eastman, but I don’t do them as read-alouds.

Your website is filled with ideas for teachers using their books (across the curriculum) and links to some great resources to encourage reading and thinking. What impact do you think CCSS will have on emergent readers?

Our teachers are finding the standards a little bit higher than what we had before and a reach, both to teach and for some students to achieve. I tell them (and parents as well) that Common Core is about a staircase. There are steps we need to take each year; it’s important that child continue to grow through strong teaching. There is pressure on teachers about what must be taught, but there is even more on the children learning. We must have children learning.

Children must like what they are doing to learn. If someone told me as a youngster I had to be proficient in motors and gears, I would have balked because I didn’t care about motors and gears. We must make sure children like reading, like learning. We must make sure they are able to experience the joy of reading. They must want to unlock what’s happening in written language so they will like to read very much. We must bring joy to emergent readers. This is a real challenge, especially for learners with disabilities or who come from homes where literacy didn’t matter much.

I hope that Come Back, Ben is a story they enjoy and can access independently. I hope it brings a sense of accomplishment, which mirrors what’s happening in the story. Ben and his sister are strong and independent characters. He’s been all the way to the moon and back and now it’s her turn to float away. That is powerful. I want children to see reading as a big adventure!

Books by Ann and John Hassett

A Selective Bibliography

Can’t Catch Me

John and Ann Hassett

When a little boy ignores his mother’s warning to “not open the freezer door,” an ice cube jumps out of the refrigerator and takes off on an adventure similar to that of “The Gingerbread Man.” The chase begins as the boy follows the jolly ice cube toward the sea, where it plans to “grow as big as an iceberg and bump into boats when they are not looking.” Passing an ant, a mouse, a cat, a goose, a popsicle man, and a dog, they all move on to the sea, where the cube dives in. As he backstrokes to the bay, dreaming of growing into an iceberg, he swims past a tricky whale who, when he hears where the ice cube is headed, tells the ice cube that his stomach is full of boats. “Let me at ’em,” the cube says. This is a clever retelling of an old tale that will delight children with the absurdity of an ice cube running away to the ocean. The illustrations add to the fun of the tale and at the end the readers realize that the boy has forgotten to close the freezer door, creating an even bigger problem. 2006, Houghton Mifflin, Ages 5 to 8, $16.00.

REVIEWER: Naomi Williamson (Children’s Literature ).

ISBN: 9780618704903

Cat Up A Tree

John and Ann Hassett

Nana Quimby, concerned about the cat stuck up a tree outside her window, attempts to telephone the traditional community source of help, but the firehouse says they’re out of that business (“Call back if that cat starts playing with matches”). When there are five cats she tries the police station (“Call back if the cats rob a bank”), when there are ten she calls the pet store (“Call back if the cats wish to buy a dog”), and so on through unhelpful responses from the zoo, the post office, the library, and city hall as the cats’ numbers increase. The cats are saved when Nana, in a fit of citizenly pique, throws her phone out the window and into the tree, providing the now-forty cats with a line of escape; metropolitan officialdom regrets its former attitude in light of a new mouse infestation. The patterned narrative has a lilting charm in the balance between Nana’s repeated cry of “Help! Cat [or however many cats] up a tree!” and the civic agencies’ drolly bureaucratic responses. The illustrations have a sedate precision that emphasizes the humor: delicate lavender, rose, and ochre shades contrast with the sturdy green of the cat-supporting tree, and tidy rows of quaint tourist-magnet village shops hint at the disaster to befall the soon catless town, since they all seem to sell cheese. Most important here are the cats, whose elongated swirly-tailed exaggeration is vaguely reminiscent of the Pink Panther but whose wonderful variety will make them endlessly desirable to young viewers. Don’t confuse this with Anne Isaacs’ book of the same title, reviewed below: this is a pettable and furry little adventure that should make lapsitters as happy as kittens with a ball of yarn. Review Code: *R — Denotes books of special distinction. (c) Copyright 1998, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1998, Lorraine/Houghton, 32p, $15.00. Ages 4-7 yrs.

REVIEWER: Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 9780395884157

Charles of the Wild

John and Ann Hassett

A liberating walk on the wild side (aka the Boston Common) awaits lapdog Charles in this wry tale. Accustomed to being carried to the groomer’s “so that he would not soil his paws” and not being allowed outdoors because “he might catch cold,” Charles lives the high life-but longs for the low. His dreams, shown as a backdrop to an image of him happily asleep, are of gnawing a moose bone or joining coyotes that howl at the moon. One night, Charles slips out an open window. He loses his lamb’s wool sweater, howls at a streetlight that he mistakes for the moon and hides in a rubbish bin, where he is found the next morning by a raggedy man. Allowing Charles to play but returning him to his fancy home, the man engineers a solution to please both Charles and his doting owner, a well-padded old lady. Unleashed, Charles provides a buoyant contrast to Boston’s tidy rowhouses and manicured park, detailed here in refined daubs of brick red and forest green. To heighten the drollery, the Hassetts (We Got My Brother at the Zoo) provide absurdly tasteful scenarios (e.g., Charles’s meals are pictured laid out on a white rug set with candelabra, fresh flowers and fine china) and adopt clipped, upper-crusty tones for the narration. 1997, Houghton Mifflin, Ages 4-8, $14.95.

REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly).

ISBN: 9780395785751

Come Back, Ben

Ann and John Hassett

Ben’s bright red balloon lifts him into the air as his sister waves and says, “Bye, Ben.” Smiling and looking up, he floats past the window, the bees, the tree, the kite, and the hill, each of which exhorts, “Come back, Ben.” On he goes, past the rain and the rainbow, all the way to the full moon, which says, “Hi, Ben.” Ben puts moon rocks in his pockets, leaving the moon a crescent shape, and begins his descent past everything and back through the window of his house. Up goes Ben’s balloon again, this time carrying his sister away! Ann Hassett’s simple, matter-of-fact text transports Ben and readers on a magical journey, full of joy and wonder. There is no fear here; Ben’s house remains in view until he reaches the moon and he smiles throughout the trip. The easy repetitive text in this I Like to Read book will give new readers confidence as they soar through the words. John Hassett’s brightly colored collage and ink illustrations are as simple as the text, yet also filled with vivacity. The window, the bees, the tree, etc., (even the raindrops) each wear the same expression—simple dots for eyes and nose and a wide-open mouth—and convey a lively surprise more than concern. The title page is filled with bright red and blue and offers a wonderful perspective of Ben on his way through the clouds. A smiling Saturn on the preceding page gives readers a slight clue about where Ben is headed. Young readers will be curious about where Ben is going, eagerly but thoughtfully turn each page, and long for their own wondrous adventure. Educators can use this as a springboard for writing or science (float and sink or astronomy), or readers’ theatre.

BIBLIO: 2013, Holiday House, Ages 2 to 6, $14.95.

REVIEWER: Peg Glisson

ISBN: 9780823425990

The Finest Christmas Tree

John and Ann Hassett

When plastic trees become all the rage, things look bleak for Farmer Tuttle, who raises Christmas trees. He can’t sell his harvest wares—or buy Mrs. Tuttle a special holiday hat. But a letter from an anonymous customer seeking “the finest tree in the forest” (and who clandestinely appears with his own team of tiny tree cutters and flying sleigh transport) changes all that. Kids will love seeing the surprise turn of play in the art, which features an evergreen forest so lush and crisp one would swear it emits a pine scent. 2005, Walter Lorraine, Ages 4-8, $16.00.

REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly).

ISBN: 9780618509010

The Three Silly Girls Grubb

John and Ann Hassett

This revisionist “Three Billy Goats Gruff” features “three silly sisters named Grubb. They came in three sizes: small, medium, and extra large.” One morning the sisters miss the bus, so off they trot, over the bridge to school: “In a hole under the bridge hid Ugly-Boy Bobby.” The first two sisters “skippity-skip-skip” across the bridge by promising Ugly-Boy that the following sister’s lunch has more donuts. When sister number three (“big-sized me”) arrives, she tells Ugly-Boy, “You may have my dozen jelly-donuts. . . . But first I will plant a dozen mushy kisses on your little-boy nose.” Needless to say, Ugly-Boy flees to school in terror (“nowadays, Ugly-Boy Bobby is called just Robert”). Some adults may tire of the well-worn cliche about kissy girls and girl-phobic boys, but primary-grade listeners will be splitting their sides. Bouncily silly language lends itself to reading or telling aloud, but to miss the equally bouncy and silly illustrations would be a crime. Strong curves draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the action in every spread. The roundly cherubic figures of the sisters and their nemesis frolic in a bucolic vale full of daisies, toadstools, and toads; the contrast between the worm-eating Ugly-Boy scowling under the bridge and the irrepressible Grubb girls crossing over it ratchets up an already high humor quotient. Cross this bridge as soon as you can find it. 2002, Lorraine, Ages 5-8 yrs, $15.00.

REVIEWER: Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 978061814183

Too Many Frogs

Ann and John Hassett

Here comes Nana Quimby–earnest, rotund, wearing her long lilac dress with a white apron and sneakers, worried about water in her basement, trying to bake a cake. (She must live in Maine, as do the author and illustrator.) A plumber can deal with the water, but what about the ten green frogs that come hopping out of the cellar? Nana calls, “Too many frogs!” out the window and a neighborhood girl advises her to put them in a goldfish bowl. Viewers can have fun watching (and counting) the long-legged creatures as they keep bouncing out of the basement in tens, making Nana hop, too, struggling to find ever-bigger containers for each new invasion. Passing boys and girls come up with helpful ideas, while poor Nana must get the frogs into water and, at the same time, get her cake mixed, baked and frosted. Could there be a million frogs? What to do now? Nana’s on her own with this decision, but kids will chuckle at the solution, as a bemused Nana sits on her cellar steps with a cup of tea and a slice of the cake (listeners might invent some solutions of their own). Artist Hassett’s acrylic paintings full of whimsical details lead readers through Nana’s kitchen, laundry, and bathroom, each filled with a foam of frogs to be counted. Young mathematicians could also enjoy counting with the Hassetts’ Cat Up a Tree (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), while a perfect follow-up is David Schwartz and Steven Kellogg’s How Much is a Million? (HarperCollins, 2004). And don’t forget to check the back cover to see Nana’s friends sharing the cake! 2011, Houghton Mifflin, Ages 3 to 7, $16.99.

REVIEWER: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780547362991

Mouse in the House
John and Ann Hassett

Nana Quimby who lived alone when we first met her in Cat Up a Tree (1999) has moved into a “messy old house” with her family. Her discovery of a mouse causes her to proclaim, “I cannot have a mouse in the house” and causes her father to order an owl to chase the creature away. With the owl firmly entrenched Nana insists, “I cannot live with an owl in the house.” So it goes through a succession of animals including a dog, alligator, tiger, and elephant until a little mouse runs off the offending pachyderm. With events coming full circle, it is Nana who runs away to live with her cousin in Florida. There is lots of fun in the rollicking text that is accentuated by the humorous watercolor illustrations. Children will giggle as they watch Nana’s frantic reaction to each animal and have fun anticipating each animal’s arrival. There is just the right amount of lighthearted comic touches to keep young audiences engaged. 2004, Houghton Mifflin, Ages 4 to 7., $15.00.
REVIEWER: Beverley Fahey (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9780618353170

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