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Four Questions for Janet Wong

Janet Wong

Janet Wong was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Southern and Northern California. During her junior year in college, she lived in France, studying art history at the Universite de Bordeaux. When she returned from France, Janet founded the UCLA Immigrant Children's Art Project, a program focused on teaching refugee children to express themselves through art. Janet graduated from UCLA, summa cum laude, with a BA in History and College Honours. She then obtained her JD from Yale Law School, where she was a director of the Yale Law and Technology Association and worked for New Haven Legal Aid. After practicing corporate and labor law for a few years for GTE and Universal Studios Hollywood, she chose to write for young people instead.

Janet's poems have been reprinted in many textbooks and anthologies, as well as in some more unusual venues, including the New York subway and on a car-talk radio show.

Janet's awards include the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award," presented by the Foothill Reading Council for exemplary service in the promotion of literacy. She also has been appointed to the Commission on Literature of the National Council of Teachers of English. Janet's first two books have received several awards including the prestigious Stone Center Recognition of Merit, given by the Claremont Graduate School's Stone Center for Children's Books. Articles by and about Janet can be found in the Claremont Reading Conference Yearbook, Scholastic's Instructor Magazine, Creative Classroom, Teaching and Learning Literature, California English, Booklinks, and various other teaching journals and newspapers.

1. Your career took quite a different direction at one point, and now you're writing for kids. How and why did that happen?  

Before becoming a children's author, I was a lawyer. In my last job, I was the Director of Labor Relations at Universal Studios Hollywood, firing people, negotiating union contracts, and battling discrimination claims. It was mean-spirited work, and one day I started thinking hard about how I was spending the big money I made — fancy uncomfortable clothes and panty hose and dry cleaning and expensive restaurants — and I saw all of a sudden that I'd rather do something more important with my life. I couldn't think of anything more important than working with kids, but I'd been a substitute teacher in the New Haven school district while I worked my way through Yale Law School, and I knew I wouldn't survive as a teacher! So I decided to quit my job and try to write for kids. A year and a half later — and many manuscripts and 26 rejection letters later — my first book, Good Luck Gold, was sold. This was a very short time, an unusually short time, thanks to my mentor and UCLA Extension instructor, the poet Myra Cohn Livingston.

2. What does poetry do for you, and what do you observe it doing for other people?  

I hated poetry as a child — mainly, I think, because most of what we read was written by dead English poets. And I hated having to memorise a poem, stand up in front of the class — then forget the poem. Myra Cohn Livingston was one of several speakers at a one-day UCLA Extension seminar that I took just a month after quitting my law job, and I had no idea who she was. (I was there to hear the editor speak about how to sell a picture book.) When Myra started talking about poetry, I started doodling and looking out the window. Then she read a poem of hers called "There Was a Place," from a book by the same title — now, sadly, out of print. After she read this poem, a 12-line poem about a child's lost father, I found myself blinking back tears. I had never heard children's poetry like that, a serious poem told in very simple words about such an important and universal subject. I recite this poem often, when speaking in public, and always it brings tears to the eyes of several people in the audience.

I think that when many people hear the words "children's poetry," they think only of silly, entertaining poems with a regular rhythm and rhyme. That's why they're so surprised when they discover the whole wealth of contemporary children's poetry that is serious, or funny in a very sophisticated way, and often unrhyming: poems by Nikki Grimes, Alice Schertle, Deborah Chandra, J. Patrick Lewis, Paul Janeczko. The best of these poems can change your way of seeing something in less than a minute, read aloud.

3. So what's this about one of your poems appearing on New York subway and bus posters?

In April, May, and June of 1998, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority chose three poems for its Poetry in Motion program, and 5,000 posters with my poem "Albert J. Bell" from A Suitcase of Seaweed were placed on buses and subways in New York City. It was quite an honour, since the other two poems chosen were William Blake's "Tyger" poem and Theodore Roethke's "The Bat"! I do about 40 school visits a year, all over the country, and recently I was in New York to work with two schools. Sitting on the subway, I noticed one of this year's Poetry in Motion posters up in the corner, beyond posters about teen pregnancy and ESL — and what a joy! By the time I finished reading the poem — once and twice and three times — I was at my station. Poetry can do so much in such a little space, and in the most unlikely places.

4. Many of your school programs fall around significant times of year, such as Mother's Day and the Lunar New Year. How does this assist you in terms of teaching, and in terms of marketing your books?  

My third book, The Rainbow Hand: Poems About Mothers and Children, begs to be read around Mother's Day, so this is why many schools invite me to visit them then. My seventh book, This Next New Year, illustrated by Yangsook Choi, is a picture book about the Lunar New Year as a time of hope — so it is natural, too, that teachers and librarians would be most interested in it at the Lunar New Year. But I do school programs the whole year round, even in summer.

My fourth book, Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving, has been used successfully by high school teachers to motivate reluctant readers and writers to write their own poems about driving experiences, real and imagined. My fifth book, Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams, encourages students of all ages to write about their dreams; and my sixth book, Buzz, a picture book about the buzzing sounds a child hears in the morning, lends itself to an exercise in onomatopoeia. Teachers are doing amazingly creative things in their classrooms, making all sorts of curriculum connections. When I visit a school, I usually model a metaphor/simile exercise where a child will take a family member and turn that person into a plant, animal or object. I will always remember the girl who said, "my mother is like braces / she's a pain to deal with / but she straightens me out."