Ask the Author: Jon Lasser
We recently caught up with Jon Lasser about his new book Grow Happy. This is part of a series on Social Emotional Learning from Magination Press.
• What is Grow Happy about?
Grow Happy is a picture book for an early childhood audience that teaches kids how to cultivate their own happiness. Growing a garden serves as a metaphor for growing happiness, and the book is based on the idea that we can make good choices and no matter what life presents us. Part of the message in the book is that we have opportunities for joy. A lot of kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have all kinds of setbacks in their lives, and the book addresses feelings and choices. This book that emerges from positive psychology, encouraging kids to do is to be reflective, to think before acting, to take the perspective of others. These are social emotional learning skills. So, we're sneaking in a little dose of SEL in a picture book
• Who is the target audience?
Well if you looked at the back of the book, it would say ages 4 to 8, but we know 4 to 8- year-olds don't buy books. So, we're thinking about parents, teachers, school counselors and school psychologists, grandparents—anyone who has an interest in positive development for children is going to have an interest in this. After reading it to hundreds of kids at bookstores and libraries I found it has wide appeal.
• What inspired you to write this book?
Well, I’m a gardener and I’m a psychologist. So those two go hand-in-hand and I’ve been mindful about what makes me happy. When it comes down to it, it’s social support, interacting with people that I love, spending time outside with them—the little things—planting a seed and watching it sprout. Of course, in any garden there are setbacks: we have pests and frost and drought. We have to know how to overcome those problems and then maintain sort of a healthy balance. So that was really the inspiration: experiences from my own life and my daughter’s as well. My co-author of this book is my youngest daughter. She is turning 21 this year. She's a psychology major, so a lot of inspiration is drawn from her experiences too.
• How can reading teachers benefit from this book?
I’m no reading expert. I’m a school psychologist, so I have a foot in psychology and education. When this book was written, my daughter and I were conscientious of the fact that for young children you need short sentences and short words, so that was very deliberate. But we also put some bigger words in there, too. So There's an opportunity for vocabulary building. A little bit of struggle, if it's not too taxing, can be helpful as well. The protagonist in Grow Happy, Kiko, talks about some frustrating situations. Frustrating is a big word but children are like sponges. They can acquire big vocabularies. Think about how a five-year-old can name more dinosaurs than you and I can combined. They’re just taking in all of that knowledge, and a reading teacher would have the opportunity to take a child who is an emerging reader and let them have the experience of reading this with some fluency, but also some time to break down a word like frustrated, which may be frustrating. Teachers also understand that children identify with characters in books. There’s a lot of social activity going on among children in Grow Happy. The books are full of positive social interactions: the brother is helpful, friends on the playground are kind, and parent-child interactions model social emotional learning. So, a reading teacher who's having behavior problems with kids may find this is a way to kill two birds with one stone: Have some literacy time but also build some social emotional development.
• Do school counselors use this book with certain students?
Yes, it's very popular with school counselors, especially those that are doing what they called “guidance lessons” where they might go into a classroom and say,
“Today we're going to talk about feelings. Kids what are some feelings that people have?”
And the children may have a limited range when they're young. They might say happy, sad, mad, that kind of thing. The counselor may then say, Okay, well today we're going to talk about happiness and ways that we can make ourselves happy, things that we can do to become happy. And then have a read-aloud. Bibliotherapy, working on kids’ problems with the use of picture books, is something that school counselors do all the time. Part of the benefit of that approach is the distancing, especially if it’s a problem that’s uncomfortable to talk about. It may be too hard to talk about me, but I’m comfortable reading a book about another kid with this concern. Reading about it feels safer. In Grow Happy the main character has some problems in her garden and how to overcome them. She also talks about her own negative feelings and writes them down. Kids like this part a lot, and I often ask, what do you think she’s writing? After reading this, they’ll say, “She’s writing in her journal or her diary about her feelings.” Sometimes they’ll say, “She’s writing a book like the book you wrote this book.” It’s a very concrete experience with the author in the room.
About Jon Lasser
Jon Lasser, PhD, is a psychologist, school psychologist, professor, and associate dean for research in the College of Education at Texas State University. At Texas State he has developed and taught graduate courses for the school psychology program and has also taught the freshman first-year experience course. He has co-authored two other books (Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kid in a Hyper-Connected World and School Psychologist as Counselor). Two more children’s books, Grow Grateful and Grow Kind, will come out over the next two years. Jon holds a bachelor's degree in Plan II liberal arts from the University of Texas at Austin, a master's degree in human sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in school psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.
(Photo credit: Red Fish Blue Fish Photography)