Janet Tashjian on Creating Imagination, Inspiration & Illustration with Reluctant Readers

Janet Tashjian is a children’s author, an advocate for reluctant readers and strong supporter of First Book. She collaborates with her son Jake Tashjian, who creates the illustrations for her books. One of their joint efforts, “Einstein The Class Hamster” was not only released to retailers, but made available to children and educators in the First Book network on the same day. 

First Book recently interviewed Janet about why access to books is so important and what led to the inspiration behind Einstein The Class Hamster. 

Q:  As an author, what drew you to want to become involved with First Book?

Janet Tashjian:  I first heard about First Book from a librarian in Florida who never would’ve been able to stock his school library without First Book. I also donated a lot of books to Bess’s Book Bus and she’d email me pictures of kids on reservations or in the Mississippi Delta holding my books with big smiles. Those photos made me want to back a truck up on the side of the road and just hand out books to kids. She also mentioned First Book, so I called to offer my services. I’m a big, big believer in giving back to the community and as a writer, my community is readers.

Q:  Why is it so important for kids in need to have access to books at home and in their classrooms?   

Janet Tashjian:  Books are one of the best ways to engage a child’s imagination and creativity is one of the most important skills children can develop. So many of today’s activities – television, Facebook, video games – are fun, but don’t actively engage the imagination the way reading does. Kids with limited resources need books as much as anyone else, maybe even more.  Books are a gateway to different worlds, to empathy, to understanding; for that reason alone they should be available to all children, not just those with resources.

Q:  You are quite the reluctant readers’ advocate. How do you help reluctant readers become interested in reading? 

Janet Tashjian:  When The Gospel According to Larry came out, teachers and librarians kept telling me how boys who usually weren’t readers loved the book. It made me really think about that population of readers for the first time. Then I noticed that Jake and his friends started having a hard time when chapter books got more difficult. Jake went to a lot of excellent reading tutors; I’m such a pragmatic mom, I told myself if I was spending all that time and effort on helping Jake be a better reader, I would put those tools to use for other kids too.

In the My Life As books, the main character is a visual learner who has a hard time reading so he draws his vocabulary words to learn them. The series has been a big hit with reluctant readers which makes me very happy. And it was the first time Jake and I collaborated which makes that series special too.

Q:  Einstein, The Class Hamster is based on a comic strip your son, Jake Tashjian, illustrated. What inspired him to first create this? 

Janet Tashjian:  I home schooled Jake for a few years in middle school. He was always drawing, so one of my assignments was for him to do a daily comic strip. At first, he said, “I can’t be funny every day!” but then he really got into it. The character he created was a hamster, but not a class hamster, and his name was Martin, not Einstein. But the illustrations were so hilarious and the hamster was so droll, I thought it would be fun to do another book together. We tweaked the story and Jake worked very hard on designing all the characters. I think he did a great job.

Q:  What books got you hooked as a child that eventually led to you becoming a children’s author?

Janet Tashjian:  The books that really got me hooked weren’t children’s books per se but adult books I read in junior high and high school. I devoured Vonnegut, Hesse, and Burgess – couldn’t get enough. They have greatly influenced my work.  As a young girl, I was obsessed with Nancy Drew, read every single one. I never thought I’d be writing a series for kids, but now I’m writing two!

Q:  What’s one of your favorite nuggets of information? 

Janet Tashjian:  Kids always ask how to get un-stuck when they’re writing.  It may sound simplistic, but I always tell them you write yourself out of writer’s block one sentence at a time.  “Bill didn’t want to go to soccer practice.”  “He didn’t want to see Maria.”  “Why did Maria always make fun of him when he read out loud in class?”  Suddenly you go from blocked, to a sentence, to a paragraph. You keep going and you have a page.  You keep going some more and you have a chapter.  It’s really that simple – one sentence at a time.  It’s what Hemingway did; if it worked for him, it can work for you.

Q:  What can we expect next from the Tashjian duo?

Janet Tashjian:  There are at least two more Einstein’s coming out. And My Life As A Joke comes out in April. We’re doing several more of those too!

Find titles by Janet Tashjian on the First Book Marketplace, a website exclusively for educators and program leaders that work with kids in need.

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