About Bena

Bena Hartman
This is what I looked like in fourth grade.

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, the fourth of five children. I was the only girl. I learned early on when my mother yelled, "Dinner" to come on the first call. My family moved to Pittsburgh where my father attended the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine when I was two years old. Though I live in Michigan, I consider Pittsburgh my home.

The best years of my childhood were spent within a half mile radius of my house. We'd spend hours playing outside in the fields, riding bikes, building tree houses, and making forts. Back then, there was plenty of space for a friendly—or not so friendly—game of kickball, baseball, dodgeball, you name it. After a quick lunch we'd finish our game, but not before eating a handful of the tastiest hand picked wild blackberries we could find.

If we weren't romping in the fields, we were playing with our neighbors' cats or dogs that wandered into our four square game. On second thought, we actually adopted these animals and cared for them as our own, including wild squirrels—Walnut was my favorite. Growing up my family had a cat named White Foot, a dog named Leida, and a slew of no named pet mice. Ah, yes, the mice. How these small, furry creatures always seemed to find their way into my parent's room is a bit of a mystery.

With so many fun and exciting things to do in and around my home, I showed very little interest in books as a child. After all, there was so much life to live outside of books. If there were dolls to be fed, shows to be watched, pictures to be colored, or hops to be scotched, I was your girl.

I vividly recall learning how to read in school. The teachers used basal readers, decodable stories, reading groups, and phonics worksheets, lots of phonics worksheets. I was an average reader. I was never in the highest reading group. And I dreaded round-robin-reading—I always read ahead before I was called on to read to make sure I knew the words. At home I enjoyed listening to my mother read children's books and the Dick and Jane readers. And yes, I read to her.

Contrary to reading, I showed a strong interest in writing and reserved Friday nights as, "writing night" as a child. I'd stay up hours past my bedtime writing about my life. I loved Friday nights and much preferred to compose text than comprehend it. Of course it wasn't until years later that I learned about the relationship between reading and writing and how reading informs the writing life.

I was highly motivated to do well in middle school, particularly in my eighth-grade English class because I had a teacher, Mrs. Kukick, who believed in me. She encouraged me beyond measure. For this reason, I found writing in high school and in college to be quite enjoyable. I especially liked free writing. My professors at college required students to keep a journal and write for at least 30-minutes a day on whatever came to mind. I found myself often writing for more than 30-minutes and filling up oodles of notebooks--that I still read today.

My love for books came while in graduate school. My professor, the late Dr. Jean Winsand, turned me on to the amazing world of children's literature. I recall Dr. Winsand reading books, namely, The Elephants Child by Rudyard Kipling, with authority, intrigue, and grace. She literally had me sitting on the edge of my seat wondering what she was going to say, or do, next. I thought to myself, that's what I want books to do to my students when I read to them.

An interest in African-American children's literature grew while taking a doctoral seminar on the History of Reading at the University of Pittsburgh. As a final project, I conducted original research on the history of African-American children's literature because I, like many others, knew absolutely nothing about it. What I found, let's just say, resonated with me in deeply personal ways.

One last thing, if someone had asked me 26 years ago why I want to write children's literature, I would have given a textbook response that resembled something like this, "I want to entertain the reader—to touch their mind and their heart." While this remains true today, it merely scratches the surface for my desire to write children's literature.

To me, writing is liberating. It satisfies my curiosity about ideas, questions, thoughts, and feelings I have floating around in my head. I write because I wonder about, care about, dream about, and think about lots of things. For me not to write would be like saying, "Don't breathe." It's an honor and privilege to share my experiences with you.

When did I start writing children's books?

I began writing books as far back as I can remember. I wrote stories about my life and gave them to my parents as presents on their birthdays and anniversary. I wanted to start writing professionally when I became a teacher, 26 years ago. But I followed the bends and curves in life and taught for several years, went back to school for my doctorate, became an assistant professor, and got married. When our youngest daughter started kindergarten, I finally found time to write and wrote my first book manuscript that was accepted for publication in 2010. Jasmine Can: Creating Self-Confidence was published in 2011.

Memorable Moments

  • As a school child: Racing against and beating the boys in the 50-yard dash.
  • Teaching: Before I graduated from Clarion one of my professors told us not to smile at our students until Christmas. I thought about the absurdity of his suggestion, but decided to listen anyway, don't ask why.

    It was the first week of school when I found myself standing at the chalkboard thinking about how happy I was to finally be a teacher. In fact, I was so happy I wanted to share this joy with my students, but remembered my professor's suggestion—not to smile until Christmas. The mere thought of this remembrance made me giggle in front of them. To my delight they giggled back. Unsure of what to do next, I turned toward the blackboard, my back facing them, and began laughing uncontrollably. I knew I had to get a hold of myself, my students were watching me and if the principal came in, well... I finally stopped laughing long enough to turn around toward them. All eyes were fixed on me. Here I was standing in front of 34 third-- and fourth--graders (you read that correctly, 34) trying my best not to laugh. What was I thinking? The next thing I knew, I had a smile on my face then started laughing in front of them. And they, as you can expect, laughed right along with me. They never knew why.