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!