I’m happy to present a fascinating interview with Ellen Mayer, a writer and expert in early literacy, in which she discusses her involvement with various organizations and programs, her baby granddaughter, why Hug Your Cat Day is at the top of her list of holidays, and gives us a peek at a very special sugar egg.
I’m really interested in your work in the education and literacy fields. Could you talk a little bit about your job as an education researcher and an early literacy home visitor, and how you got into those fields?
I got into these fields after leaving a Sociology PhD program right near the end. I didn’t want to be an academic and teach, I wanted to do applied research – to solve practical problems out in the world and to make a difference in the lives of those who were struggling. At the Harvard Family Research Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, I studied the ways that families from underserved communities were engaged in supporting their children’s learning and education, and created research-based materials for families and schools to promote effective engagement. One of these was the Family Involvement Storybook Corner—curated picture book selections with family engagement themes. That got me interested in early literacy and picture books.
After researching family engagement in children’s learning for many years, I decided I wanted to go out into the field and be a practitioner and work directly with families on this topic. I worked as an early literacy home visitor with diverse families with the Parent-Child Home Program, modeling ways to share stories with little ones to build early language. I actually got paid to read picture books and play with families in their homes!
At the same time, I was pitching my Small Talk Books®, a collection of playful stories about everyday activities that provide fun for kids and ideas for adults – Rosa’s Very Big Job is one. The adults in the stories are engaged with children’s learning, modeling conversational ways to build young children’s language.
I read that your book Red Socks, another of the Small Talk Books®, is being used in a program to turn wash time at Laundromats into talk time for literacy development. Could you discuss this early literacy initiative?
Yes! Wash Time/Talk Time is a terrific campaign led by Too Small To Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and the Opportunity Institute teaming up with a host of partners to turn Laundromats in underserved areas into venues for early literacy. This campaign distributes free books and information to families in Laundromats about building early language to help close what’s called the “word gap” by promoting parent conversation with babies and young children. Almost 60% of children in our country start kindergarten behind in their language development and this then sets them on a downward path and they get even further behind in school.
Red Socks was a natural fit for this program. In it a Mama narrates what she is doing for her little pre-verbal child as she folds the laundry and dresses the child—and as they search for a missing sock!
I have to say that it’s a dream come true that Too Small To Fail is using my book.
Wash Time/Talk Time is really reaching the families on the other side of the word gap who most need the ideas and inspiration in Red Socks. When I began writing the Small Talk Books® I wanted to include stories about doing laundry, as it’s something we all do as parents and provides lots of things to talk about with children. (Like the color of socks!) In fact, I used to sit in Laundromats and observe families when I was thinking up ideas for stories. I guess that’s the sociologist in me.
We just had the opportunity to visit one of the Laundromats in the campaign—at the Free Laundry Day in Tampa, FL hosted by The Laundry Project—and share Red Socks with families. You can see some of the fun illustrator Ying-Hwa Hu and I had here:
What inspired you to begin writing picture books?
I came to picture book writing through a backdoor. When I was at Harvard Family Research Project, I was thinking about new ways to convey our ideas from research into practice for parents, and it occurred to me that a read-aloud picture book could address an audience of parents, as well as the primary one of children. My boss was enthusiastic about the idea, and so I enrolled in an adult ed class on writing for children. Then I turned one of our research case studies about challenges an immigrant Latino family had in communicating with their son’s teacher into a picture book, Tomasito’s Mother Comes to School/La mamá de Tomasito visita la escuela. Joe Cepeda did the art for it, and we made it downloadable for free.
What’s up for you next?
Some new things! I have a fellowship with the Storytelling Math Project that’s funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation and coordinated by TERC, a not-for profit STEM research and development organization here in Cambridge, MA. I’ll be a member of a group that’s identifying, creating, and promoting math-infused storybooks for diverse young children and I hope to create a couple of Small Talk Books® along these lines—probably about supermarket shopping! I also was asked to help out the Highlights magazine editorial team that creates HELLO magazine for 0-2 years and be an outside reviewer for issues before they go to publication. And then I’ll be volunteering as a visiting children’s book author to the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, the family engagement and early childhood hub of the Somerville, MA Public Schools, sharing my books with playgroups and new parent groups.
But mostly, I plan to write! I have a bunch of picture book manuscripts in various states, and ideas for new ones. These manuscripts are different from the Small Talk Books®; they don’t have a deliberate educational underpinning to them. They are fun, and just fun. One, for example, is called What To Do With Ruby-Lou and it’s about a baby who doesn’t laugh, no matter what her family does. Who is going to be able to get a laugh out of Lou? Well, it’s a surprise and it just might require some audience participation. I’ve had an agent in the past and hope to find a new one to rep me with these picture books.
You recently became a grandmother. Can you tell me a little about your granddaughter?
I thought our granddaughter was the most wonderful and expressive baby in the world when was she born – of course! She and my advance copy of the new Rosa book arrived into the world at just about the same time.
At three months now my granddaughter is a big reader and is riveted on the B&W hi-contrast board book genre, especially one board book about cars and trucks. She moves her head back and forth, from one end of the spread to the other, scanning the images on the page like a studious scholar of some ancient text.
What is the best part about being a grandmother?
For me the best part about being a grandmother is being able to simply enjoy my granddaughter and play with her and watch her develop, and not have to worry about taking care of her daily needs. I didn’t have to stress when she refused to take the bottle before starting full-day childcare. That wasn’t my job. (She did take it – of course!) They live nearby, and seeing her once or twice a week, I love noticing small changes on each visit. I also love seeing our daughter and son-in-law parent.
Have you given thought to what you’d like your granddaughter to call you?
Our daughter asked us ahead of time what we’d like to be called when we became grandparents. I thought it was a wise idea to be proactive and select a name immediately, to avoid being named by the grandchild something like “Grandma GA-GOO-GA.” My great aunt Jane is called “Nini” as a grandmother, and I’ve always loved that, but I didn’t want to steal it. So I chose “Mimi.”
It sounds as if Grandparents Day may be one of your top holidays! Do you have another favorite?
When I was little, I liked Easter a lot because it combined a lot of my favorite things: crafts, springtime, running around outside, candy. Also, we didn’t dress up much as kids, but I do remember Easter bonnets!
When our children were little, their birthdays became my favorite holiday celebrations. Now that they are grown, maybe I need to pick a new favorite holiday? I see that June 4th is Hug Your Cat Day. That might be just right: we have a rather large and ferocious cat and when she actually lets you hug her, well, it’s a cause for celebration.
Do you have an anecdote from any holiday that you’d like to share?
When I was six years old, I saw the Easter Bunny. I was staying at my Grandparents’ house, and I looked down the stairwell, and there he was, crossing the landing at the foot of the stairs. He was quite tall, wore a yellow slicker that was too small for him, and he was carrying a large Easter basket. I’m afraid I didn’t have my Brownie camera with me at the time to snap a photo.
But I do have an unwrapped sugar Easter egg that I’ve saved from that era.
Thanks for sharing so much about your work and life, Ellen! I wish you all the best with Rosa’s Very Big Job, your other Small Talk Books®, and of all your other ventures!
Rosa’s Very Big Job can be found at
Visit Ellen Mayer on her:
Picture Book Review