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Transcript from an interview with Janet Wong

Janet Wong

Below are edited transcripts from Reading Rockets' interviews with Janet Wong:

 

Books & Poems

Bilingual editions of This Next New Year

This Next New Year is my book about the Lunar New Year, Chinese and Korean because I’m half Chinese and half Korean. It was published in 2000 by Frances Foster Books, which is an imprint of Farrar, Straus, a great publisher, a great house. When Frances died recently, this book was put out of print. Ordinarily I would be kind of sad about a book going out of print, but in this case I was actually kind of happy because it meant we could have the rights back.

The rights reverted to us and Yangsook Choi, who is the illustrator, grew up in Korea, and she wanted to do a Korean bilingual version. And I said “Well, we need to do a Chinese bilingual version too then, you know, because I’m half Chinese and half Korean, and actually there are more Chinese readers than Korean readers in this country. So,” I said, “so let’s do a Chinese bilingual version, a Korean bilingual version, and for the people who would rather have more space on the page, let’s just do one that’s a reprint of the original English-only edition.”

So, we have the three versions, and I’m so proud of how they turned out. One thing that I never envisioned would happen that has happened is that Chinese language classes for college students have picked this book up so that they can have something a little bit different from their usual reading. I’ve had some people buy this book just because they never knew what Korean letters looked like and they wanted to see what do Korean letters look like on a page? So, they ordered the book from Amazon and they were able to see, “Okay, this is what Korean looks like.”

And we put a phonetic, Romanized version of the text in also because not everybody can read the Korean alphabet. Well, I can’t for one. But now I can in my very, very bad Korean using the Romanized text, I can read some of it. So, I’m kind of thrilled that we were able to turn something good out of the bad thing of this book going out of print.

But books go out of print every day. Some books are going out of print in less than a year after being published. That’s why it’s so important that if somebody sees a book that they like, they need to buy that book. And maybe that book will become a birthday present next year. Maybe that book will be a Christmas present two years from now, will be a donation to the school library. But if you see it and you like it, you have to get it because the book could be out of print before you know it.

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Reading in Chinese: This Next New Year

I’m going to read from This Next New Year, the Chinese bilingual edition. And the reason I’m going to try this is because I don’t really speak Chinese. But I want to show you how even if you don’t speak Chinese, you can make the effort. And if you have students who do speak Chinese, they’re going to laugh at you. They’re going to think you sound terrible, probably maybe even worse than I’m going to sound.

Note, I’ve never tried this before, not even privately. But give it a try because that’s how some of your students felt or feel when they’re speaking English. So, you need to put yourself on the line. Here I’m going to read.

“This Next New Year is about to begin.

[Chinese]

‘Not the regular New Year, January 1.”

[Chinese] Oh boy, that’s bad. [Chinese]

Now, those of you who have Chinese students, they’re just howling by now. They’re thinking that is so funny because it’s so bad. But try it out. It could be fun. You don’t have to read the whole book. You could just read one stanza.
“When we watch the Rose Parade and football games and make crazy New Year’s resolutions. But the Lunar New Year, the day of the first new moon, I call it Chinese New Year even though I am half Korean and my mother cooks Tteokguk, the Korean New Year soup.”

Now, Tteokguk is the soup that you have to drink – you have to eat on New Year’s Day. And I always thought it was the most vile soup. That’s because – I hope my mother doesn’t see this. She really isn’t a good cook, especially her Tteokguk is awful. But anyway so it’s just this rice cake soup with beef and egg, and you have to drink it. You have to drink it. Anyone can make it. You just get some kind of dough. Then you cut it into thin slices and you boil it.

You just put some beef broth in and a little bit of egg and boom, you have Tteokguk soup. If you drink it, you’ll have good luck for the whole New Year. All right.

“My mother cooks Tteokguk, the Korean New Year soup. My best friend, Glenn, who is French and German, calls it Chinese New Year too even though he celebrates it at his house by eating Thai food to go.”

And the book goes on.

But the message of the book really is that the Lunar New Year is more than just the individual little parts of the holiday. The Lunar New Year is really about hope. It’s about a fresh start. So, in the end I say I have – well, I’ll back up a little bit.

“And all day tomorrow, Lunar New Year’s Day, I will not say one awful thing. None of that can’t do, don’t have, why me because this is it, a fresh start, my second chance. And I have so many dreams, so many dreams I’m ready now to make come true.” So, that’s This Next New Year with a little bit of really bad Chinese at the beginning.

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About “Liberty”

One of the really neat things about being a poet is that you don’t have to do your whole book by yourself, and you can have a poem that’s included in an anthology that somebody else put together or you can become an anthologist and put together a book with poems by a lot of people. One anthology that I was in that I’m really proud of is Caroline Kennedy’s Poems to Learn by Heart.

You know, it’s kind of funny. I had to look at the title because I hadn’t learned it by heart. Oh well, anyway. Poems to Learn by Heart. She had a representative contact me to use my poem, “Liberty,” in that book. It’s a poem that is actually on the back cover and inside Declaration of Interdependence, which I published myself because I wanted to have poems for an election year and it was already the election year.

And I knew that no publisher would be able to publish it very quickly. So, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to write some poems to inspire people to vote and to think about issues, and I’m going to publish it, and it’s going to be out in two weeks.” And so I did that actually right at the very beginning of this last election when Obama was re elected.

And one reason that I wrote that as a riff on the Pledge of Allegiance is that I do a lot of school visits where I hear kids say [imitates kids saying Pledge of Allegiance]. And in kindergarten and first grade they’re really focusing on the words, but later on I’m not sure that they’re thinking about what the words mean at all. But they know the rhythm. They know the rhythm.

And because I wanted to make it easy for them to remember the poem and I also wanted them to think about what should the mission of this country be, that’s why I chose for my form to go with rhythm, to follow the rhythm of the Pledge of Allegiance and have a pledge to liberty that included honoring all people.

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Poem: “Liberty”

My name is Janet Wong, and I’m going to be reading my poem, “Liberty,” from Caroline Kennedy’s anthologies – anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart.

“Liberty”

“I pledge acceptance of the views so different that make us America, to listen, to look, to think, and to learn. One people sharing the earth responsible for liberty and justice for all.”

The illustrations in Night Garden

Night Garden was inspired actually by the illustrations because I saw Julie Paschkis’s work, and I thought they had a really – that her paintings had a really dream-like quality. And so I said, you know, “Could I write some poems about dreams to fit this art?” And Julie said, “Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.” And so I took pictures of her art. I wrote poems to go with them. We sold the book.

And then Julie said, you know, “I want to do all new paintings. Does that bother you?” And so she ended up doing all new paintings. But this book was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. I was really, really thrilled when it got that award. And that poem, “There is a Place,” is inspired by my wish that kids would look inside themselves for stories and inspiration and just entertainment more often.

We tend to honor the things that we see on the outside as being better than what’s inside of us, but when you stop and you just sit quietly and you let your mind wander, all kinds of things come in that will hopefully delight you, amaze you, and make you say, “Wow, I’m a pretty special person.” So, if teachers share that poem with kids, I want them to give kids then five minutes just to daydream. Just daydream. You don’t have to write anything. Draw some pictures if you want. Whatever pops into your mind put it down. And when you look at that piece of paper, wow, that’s you. That’s yours.

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New translations of Night Garden

Right now Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams is out of print. But my exciting news, and you are the first ones to hear it, is that Alma Flor Ada is going to do a Spanish version of this book. She’s translating all of the poems in this book or as Alma Flor explained to me, when you’re translating, you really don’t translate word for word. You don’t want to translate word for word.

The best translations pick up the spirit of the poem. And hopefully they use a lot of the same words, but I’m really excited about it. I haven’t seen it yet, but she’s working on it. And when I told Yangsook Choi, the illustrator of This Next New Year, that there was going to be a Spanish version, would she like to maybe do a Korean version too, she jumped at it. So, I already have actually sitting in my computer the Korean version of this book, Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams. So, maybe very soon there will be versions of this that people can check out of their library I’m hoping. I’m hoping so.

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Poem: “There Is a Place”

My name is Janet Wong, and I’m going to be reading my poem, “There is a Place,” from Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams.

There is a place where the museum houses thousands of paintings seen nowhere else in the world, the colors so bright they grab your eyes and hold you there looking; where the library is filled with brand-new books waiting for you to open them first, to tell stories only you could know; where fresh cherries have no pits or puppies never grow old. There is such a place hidden deep in me.

Poem: “Looking at the Sky Tonight”

I’m Janet Wong, and I’m going to read “Looking at the Sky Tonight” from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science.

“Looking at the sky tonight. Dad and I look up at the sky. He points to dots and asks what they are. I say, ‘Well, stars.’ But he wants something else, some different words. He’s tracing a shape with his finger in space. And now I see it’s a measuring cup or a powder drink scoop or something bigger. Smaller than a pot but not by a lot. How about we call it The Big Dipper?”

So, I wrote that poem because I wanted a science poem about astronomy that met the NGSS, the Next Generation Science Standards, but that also was a natural fit, something – where do kids happen to learn astronomy? Well, when they’re camping and they’re looking up at the sky or just lucky enough to see the stars one night.

And very often since it’s late at night, very often with a parent or a grandparent who points things out. So, I thought okay, that’s a relevant and genuine experience about astronomy that I can write about to make science a less intimidating and more familiar thing. That’s where that poem came from.

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Poem: “Good Luck Gold”

“Good Luck Gold” was my first book. I didn’t want to write a book of poems. I was trying to write a picture book and sell it. But in the meantime, I did homework for a class I took with Myra Cohn Livingston. Every week I turned in a thick stack of homework. The next week the poems came back unmarked. Nothing. I thought is she reading my poems? I would actually have preferred red marks just to know yeah, she was reading my poems.

Anyway, finally nine weeks into studying with Myra, hundreds of poems into studying with Myra, I finally got a mark. I got a VG. I didn’t know what it meant. I looked at it. I thought it was a UQ. I went up to Myra. I actually thought I don’t know what UQ means. I went up to Myra and said, “Uh, this week you put a mark on my paper, UQ.” And she said, “That’s VG, dear.” And then because I still didn’t know, she said, “Very good.”

Well, that was the epitome of praise. You know, you have some of those teachers who that is it, you’re not getting any more. That was it for Myra. That was the epitome of praise. And so I said to myself, “She wants me to write about that?” Well for nine weeks I had been writing funny poems, silly poems, poems about made-up things that I thought somebody would want to read. Finally I decided to write about something that had happened to me.

I wrote about something that happened to me the summer between eighth and ninth grade when I was traveling up to Yellowstone with my dad. We stopped into a diner. We walked in. We looked around. It said please wait to be seated. We waited and we waited and we waited and we did not get served. Well, we finally seated ourselves. We continued to wait. We didn’t get served.

I decided, you know, I know that that experience was about race discrimination and I need to write about that. And the really gratifying thing is that I’ve been to some schools where kids will come up to me and say, “I like this poem because I know it’s real because I’ve seen it happen.” Now, I’m pretty sure it was about race discrimination. Am I 100 percent sure? No. There’s that one percent of doubt that says well, maybe the waitresses saw our California license plates and they said, “Oh no, more Californians and they decided that they weren’t going to serve us because of that. Maybe.”

And so I tell kids, “You know, sometimes something will happen and either it makes you angry or maybe it just makes you confused. You’re not sure why it happened. That’s a good time to write a poem. That’s a good time to write a poem. Take out a piece of paper and just write about it. Just let the ideas pour out of your mind. Let the thoughts, the memories pour out of your mind. And when you’re done, you can be done with it and you can move on.”

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Poem: “Waiting at the Railway Café”

I’m Janet Wong, and I’m going to read “Waiting at the Railroad Café” from Good Luck Gold and Other Poems.

Waiting at the Railroad Café

“All the white kids are eating. ‘Let’s go, Dad,’ I say. ‘Let’s get out of this place.’ But Dad doesn’t move. He’s going to prove the Asian race is equal. We stay and take our silent beating. He folds his arms across his chest, glaring at the waitresses who pass by like cattle ready for a western battle.

They will not look. They refuse to surrender even to my best wishing on bracelet charms. ‘Consider this part of your education,’ Dad says. I wonder how long we’ll be ignored, like hungry ghosts of Chinese men who laid this track, never making their journeys back but leaving milestones and signposts to follow. “Why do they treat us so wrong?” I wonder. “Don’t they know we’re on vacation?” A drunk shouts at us and gets louder and redder in the face when we pay him no mind. I say, ‘Let’s get out of this place. We’re not equal. We’re better,’ as I pull Dad by the hand.

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Poem: “My bird day”

I’m Janet Wong, and I’m going to read “My Bird Day” from Good Luck Gold.

“When my grandfather says ‘birthday’ in his Chinese accent, it sounds like bird day, which is closer to truth for us anyway. At my birthday parties we never have paper streamers, piñatas in trees, balloons taped up on the wall. We decorate with platters of Peking duck, soy sauce chicken, and squab in lettuce cups. Food is all that matters. Other Chinese families might do things differently, but my grandfather, whose name is Duck, thinks it’s good luck to make a bird day special.”

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Diversity in chess clubs

Another book that I feel is maybe my most multicultural book is Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club. There’s no reference to ethnicity or to race. But it just so happens that chess is something that a lot of immigrant children play. Kids from Eastern Europe play chess with their dads, and that is a way of sharing in their cultural heritage.

Kids from China, lots of kids from China play chess. And when you go to chess tournaments in the U.S. that they have for kindergarteners, you see kindergarteners who are Chinese, who are Eastern European in incredible numbers. I would say 50 percent are either from Eastern Europe or Asia, but particularly China.

And so is that a multicultural book even though it doesn’t say the word “Chinese” or “Russian” anywhere? I’d like to think that it’s a great multicultural book because part of our duty as adults who share diverse literature with children is introducing them to something that they can relate to. So, if you give a Chinese American kid a book about a Chinese dragon, it might resonate with that kid, but it’s probably not a part of his everyday life.

You give him a book about chess, and he might say, “Oh yeah, I do that all the time, right.” So, I think we need to broaden our definition of what good multicultural literature is.

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Chess is a universal language

So, you go to a chess tournament. You go to a chess tournament for K-6, and it’s like the United Nations because kids from all over the world, especially kids who don’t have easy access to expensive electronics, kids from all over the world are playing chess when they’re four and five years old at home. They’re learning it from usually dads or grandfathers. It’s usually the man who’s an important figure in their lives.

They’re learning that at home. And then they come to a chess tournament, and they might be new to this country and not yet feel like they’re comfortable in speaking English. But with a chess board it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Chess is a universal language. Every school needs a chess program I think.

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Excerpt: Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club

I’m Janet Wong, and I’m going to read from Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club.

“Tournament chess is not just about chess. It’s about sharing cheese puffs, when to go to the bathroom, what to do when the person on the other side is making you nervous, and how much money to spend on soda pop and candy. It’s about how fast or how slow to play, playing football outside between games, and telling your parents all about your smart moves so they’ll give you more money for soda pop and candy.

“The best part about tournament chess is winning of course, and the worst part about tournament chess is sitting there for 20 minutes waiting for the other guy to make a move, and when he finally does move, you don’t see he’s going to smash you up the middle. And you do the first thing that pops into your mind, which is really, really, really dumb, but you really, really, really have to pee. And that’s all you can think about for heaven’s sake. And zap, bang, you’ve been whooped, and he shakes your sweaty hand and smiles until, ick, all of a sudden he realizes you’ve been eating Fred’s cheese puffs.”

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Writing Poetry

Important kinds of reading

I’m kind of embarrassed sometimes to say to kids that reading was not something that I thought about a lot as important. It’s something I did. And being a child of immigrant parents with immigrant grandparents who didn’t know how to read their Medicare letters and deal with letters from the IRS, the kind of reading I found myself doing at a very young age is not exactly pleasure reading, but it was really important to my family.

So, was reading important to me as a kid? Yes. Did I do a lot of it? Yes. Did I think of myself as a reader? No. I didn’t think of myself as a reader. And actually, you know, it’s a kind of sad thing I didn’t think of myself as a reader. I had a very narrow view of what constitutes reading. And I encourage kids to think about everything that they’re doing and that’s entering their eyes and going into their brain as reading.

So, I say to them, “How many of you think that you’re readers?” And about half the room will go up, you know, hands in half the room. Then I’ll say, “Well, all right. Let me ask you this. If you’re sitting at breakfast and there’s a cereal box in front of you, how many of you will read the cereal box?” Oh, all the hands will go up. And I’ll say, “Well, you’re readers.” And all of a sudden it’s [snaps] “Yeah, I’m a reader. I didn’t realize that. I’m a reader.”

Then maybe there are three, like three hands that didn’t go up. So, then I’ll say, “How many of you when you get a video game, the first thing you do is you open it up and you read the instructions to figure out how to play the game?” Oh, and a bunch of hands go up. And I’ll say, “How many of you will go onto a website and find the cheat sheet so that you figure out how to play the game?” And more hands will go up. And I’ll say, “You guys are readers. You’re readers.”

And then the question that gets every single hand up in the room is I’ll say, “Well, how many of you if you’re sitting on the toilet in a public bathroom and there’s graffiti on the door, how many of you will read the graffiti?” And every single hand goes up, and I say, “You see, you’re a reader more than you think.” And I think it’s really important for kids to think of themselves as reading. A lot of kids are reading, but it’s informational reading or it’s like I did for my grandparents reading the Medicare and IRS letters.

That’s important reading too, and that’s reading that they need to tell their teachers that they’re doing, so that even when they write out the log, the 20-minutes-a-day reading log that says what did you read today, great if they can write a picture book or a novel. But if what they read that day was a letter from the government that they read to their grandparents, I want that to go down on the list too.

And it’s something that teachers need to realize, that a lot of their kids that might not speak up in class, a lot of the kids that they might not know very well might have a whole other life as a reader and writer that they’re not aware of. It’s something that teachers need to ask. What are you doing after school?

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“Oh, no! Not poetry!”

I don’t know if you know, but I hated poetry. Starting in fourth grade I decided poetry was not for me. Picking poems apart, having to memorize them, I didn’t want to do that. But my mentor, Myra Cohn Livingston, brought me to poetry because I heard her speak at a conference one day. There were four speakers. She happened to be one of them. She started – she introduced herself as the author of over 80 books of poetry.

I thought, “Oh no, poetry, not poetry.” And then she read a poem that brought tears to my eyes. And I blinked back tears and I thought, “I can learn something from that woman.” But it wasn’t until 26 rejection letters later that I decided, you know, maybe if I learned about rhyme and repetition and rhythm, then maybe I could write a picture book that would sell. So, that’s how I came to poetry. And then really learning about it for the first time from Myra Cohn Livingston I decided that I loved it. And since then I’ve been writing poetry.

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My best stories

I didn’t realize that I could write about my own life, my everyday life, my childhood memories. I didn’t realize that until about 26 rejection letters and a year after I started. When I first started, I thought “Oh, I need to write something that publishers will like. I need to write something that kids will like.” Well, what do kids like? Funny stories, stories about made-up things. I didn’t realize my own life, the little details, the little stories, what I ate for breakfast, having wonton noodle soup and having my friend make fun of it one morning when she came over and said, “What’s that? Don’t you eat normal food for breakfast?” And I said well, yeah.

And she said, “Well, don’t you eat bacon and eggs and pancakes?” And I said, “Well, yeah, we eat bacon and eggs, we eat pancakes, but when we’re lucky, we get wonton noodle soup.” I didn’t realize that that was good enough for a book until I got all those rejection letters and I looked at them and I thought what can I do, and one of my friends said, “You know, multicultural is in.” And I thought that was such a copout. I thought well, you know, yeah, I’m Chinese, I’m Korean, but I grew up in America. And why can’t I write about chocolate chip cookies too?

But then the more I thought about it, my best stories were really stories about my parents, about my grandparents, and they happen to be multicultural. So, the best stories that I had were multicultural too. And once I started writing from my own experience, from my own memories, finally then I was able to get published.

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Fun poetry on Friday

Well with Poetry Friday there’s been a celebration in the children’s literature blogosphere, in the [unint.], a celebration of poetry on Fridays. It’s just a tradition that’s developed. It could have been Poetry Mondays. It could have been Poetry Saturdays. It happens to be Poetry Friday. But because of the feelings that people associate with Friday, “Friday’s here, we can relax, Thank God it’s Friday,” you know, because of all of that we thought what a great, great thing to do to make sort of a poetry celebration in the classroom.

Just five minutes a day read a poem, cover five points: read it; read it again with the kids; talk about some kind of question, raise a discussion question; point out the Common Core skills in one minute. You could do it in one minute. And then make a text to text connection. Just five minutes, painless poetry sharing, fun poetry sharing five minutes a day on Friday.

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Diversity in Poetry Friday Anthology

I’m so proud of The Poetry Friday Anthology because of the diversity element. Not only are there poems on all types of topics, but poets who might not have a collection of their own poems, poets who represent voices, who have voices that we don’t often hear. And so not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of diverse experiences like a child who wakes up and her mom is at work already so she’s in charge of making breakfast for her and her siblings. Where are the poems about that? I knew I needed to write one. I solicited poems from basically my poetry friends.

I have about 100 poetry friends after 20 years of writing poetry. Solicited poems from them. I got about 500 poems. I only had room for 218 I think we have in the book. In our first book it’s 218, the third book has 218, the middle one for middle school has 110. But so for 218 poems out of 500, I had to pick the ones that really stood out for some reason or another.

Sonya Sones, I picked her poem about babysitting because where are the poems about babysitting? That makes up a big part of a middle schooler’s life, and the experience of babysitting. Where are the poems? Alma Flor Ada wrote a poem for us about Mario José Molina. There’s a lot of talk about STEM and diversity and the need to encourage Latino kids to go into science and technology and engineering and math. But where are the poems about – that provide a role model for science?

So, when Alma Flor Ada wrote a poem for us about Mario José Molina, the Nobel Prize winner, I said, “Perfect. Perfect.” That’s what we need. Not just picking a poem because it’s written by a person of color, but picking a poem that really contributes to the discussion that makes people proud of their heritage, that inspires kids to do something great with their lives. That’s the kind of diversity that I was looking for. And the poets rose to the occasion.

Each of our books has over 70 poets involved. And poets wrote about everything from celebrating the end of Ramadan, to Diwali, to Tashlich. April Halprin Wayland wrote about the tradition of Tashlich, the Jewish tradition of Tashlich where you throw away your bad memories of the year in order to give yourself forgiveness and start the New Year by throwing bread into the ocean off a pier. So, we’ve got all kinds of diversity.

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Poetry Friday: Holiday Anthology

With the holiday anthology we wanted to pick holidays that haven’t been represented in mainstream books. So, for instance, Day of the Dead, Día de Muertos, is no more gory or spooky than Halloween. I think actually it’s much tamer and has the element of respect for the dead. You give the ofrendas, you remember your grandfather.

And when Rene Saldaña, Jr. said that he wanted to write a Day of the Dead poem, I said yes, go for it, go for it because we need that. We need to introduce that poem. Margarita Engle wrote a poem about cascarones, the eggs that you break on top of your head that have confetti spilling out. What a great visual holiday. What a neat celebration.

But how many kids know about it? Hopefully more kids will know about it after the Poetry Friday for Celebrations is out and they read that poem. Even some celebrations that – even some celebrations that are for really young kids like Navajo baby’s first laugh, we have a poem. I never knew there was a Navajo ceremony for a – honoring a baby’s first laughter and that everyone tries to make the baby laugh, and the person who succeeds in making the baby laugh gets to host the celebration. That’s their reward.

And Nancy Bo Flood and Roseanne Tahe, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, wrote that poem together. I’m very proud to have that poem. So, we have a lot of diversity in the Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. And I think what better way to introduce yourself to a culture, to a new culture, than through celebration.

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Advice to student writers: Just try

What advice do I give to student writers? Just try. There’s so much emphasis on results. There’s even a lot of emphasis on process. I want to reward you just for starting, just for having the courage to take the first step. You know, there’s that phrase, “You can’t win if you don’t play,” you know, for the lottery. I think it’s so true with kids.

There’s so many good things that can come out of writing, not just education, not just in terms of education, but writing a poem for yourself when you’re feeling really downhearted and you have no one to talk to and you take five minutes, you just try to get it down. Even starting that, just starting that puts you in such a better place than you were yesterday. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have with curriculum today is there’s no time to develop the child, the compassion within a child.

So, if you have to hit the language arts and the Common Core skills, well devote 10 minutes to a poetry quick-write. And that child is going to put into her poem whatever it is that she needs to learn and that she needs to talk about. What a great way, what a great way to teach character education too.

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Importance of failure

Just try because they need to become familiar – they need to become familiar with failure. If kids always succeed and they’re used to always starting something and finishing it and having a result, a successful end product, then what’s going to happen when they’re 20 years old and for the first time in their lives they get something wrong?

We need to train kids to experiment, to try, not to have fear. That’s one of the great things about a science curriculum actually is that when you’re doing an experiment, you’re going to fail most of the time. And yet scientists emerge with such confidence because they know that failure is the norm. Failure is the norm, and any time they succeed, well that’s just a bonus. That’s one of the reasons why STEM education is so important.

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Meeting an adopted Chinese student

A girl came up to me after a library event, a Chinese girl who was adopted. And she said, “I’m Chinese. I’m Chinese too.”

And I said, “Oh, great.” And then she said something to me and then the next thing I knew she said, “No one is going to want to marry me.” And she was about fourth grade. I said, “Why?” And I’m thinking, “Why is she saying this? Why is she saying this to me?” And she said, “Well, because no one’s going to want to marry me because I’m Chinese.” And I thought, “Oh my. Here she is in this town that’s mainly white, and it’s making her feel totally undesirable.”

And so I said something to her like, “Well, first of all, not everybody gets married. You know, you don’t have to get married. Second of all, maybe you don’t even want to get married, but if you do want to get married, you know what, there are billions of Chinese people who are married, and you are going to find the right person if that’s what you want to do.” And then I left there and I thought, “Wow, why did she tell me this?”

And I think the reason she said this to me was maybe because I was the first – I’m guessing – maybe I was the first Chinese person who was a bit of a role model that she had met because in her largely white community maybe the only – well, a lot of communities that are largely white have only five Asian people in the whole town. You have the Chinese restaurant person.

You have the Korean drycleaner. You know, maybe you have the Vietnamese gardener, right. And so maybe she just thought “Oh, I can tell her. I can tell her because she’s Chinese and she will understand.”

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Subtle diversity

On the issue of diversity, what I think we really need more of is subtle diversity in children’s literature. So, a story that has no particular ethnic or racial reference but shows children of color, people of color on the pages just doing regular everyday things that anybody would do. One thing I’m really proud of is that the illustrator for The Dumpster Diver chose to bring in not only kids of all kinds of ethnicities but also true diversity in terms of personality and outlook.

We have a kid with a Mohawk, you know. Not every community has kids with Mohawks. And kids who are in a community where not a single kid has a Mohawk needs to see, “Oh, all right, you know, I wanted to do that with my hair, and I’m not crazy. Maybe I can’t do it, but I’m not crazy. Somebody else has done it.”

2010 Interview

Burritos, pizza, and chopsticks

I grew up in the area that's now considered Korea Town. Back then there weren't very many Koreans at all, but it was just a regular, normal area of Los Angeles. And my childhood was as much, well, to give you an example: People often assume that I grew up eating Chinese food or Korean food and ate with chopsticks. But I didn't learn how to use chopsticks until I was 12 years old, because most of the time I ate burritos and pizza and Tommy burgers and all kinds of things that were not typically Chinese or Korean. And I think that was one of the really neat things about Los Angeles. One of the best things about Los Angeles is the way the cultures blend.

And I grew up, even though I don't speak — well, I don't speak Chinese or Korean and don't speak Spanish — I know a fair number of Spanish words and phrases because I grew up in Los Angeles. I know about all different kinds of foods, and little cultural icons because there's such a great mix of backgrounds in Los Angeles. But it was a pretty typical childhood, you know. Watching TV, riding my skateboard. I had a Batman skateboard, and doing things like drawing on the sidewalk and just pretty, pretty regular.

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The Trip Back Home

The Trip Back Home actually is my favorite of my picture books not because I think it's the best written, but because I really believe in the message. And we're not supposed to, you know, transmit messages and be preachy, but I do think that some of the best gifts are not the store-bought gifts, but the well-chosen, inexpensive gifts. The things that we really think about: What do they need?

And also the hand-made, home-made gifts. And so that's really the message in this book. Can I read a little? Okay. "The week we went on the trip back home to visit the village where mother grew up, we shopped for gifts for our family, things we thought they would need". I'll skip a few pages ahead.

"We gave my grandfather, my haraboji, a pair of leather work gloves, tough and tanned like his thick-skinned farmer's hands. We gave my grandmother, my halmoni, an apron, ruffled at the edge, with two large pockets in the shape of flowers. We gave my aunt, my imo, a picture book with simple words to teach her English."

Well, we gave them all these store-bought gifts. But when the day came for us to make our trip back home, "haraboji gave us a charcoal drawing of the hills behind the house. And halmoni gave us dried persimmons strung together in a necklace. And imo gave us a poem in Korean, folded small. And we — we gave them hugs."

So, you know, kids feel such pressure to save money, to make money, to buy things, to buy a good Mother's Day present, to buy a good birthday present, a good Christmas present. I want kids to think, you know, maybe the best present might be a poem, a poem folded small. Maybe the best present might be a charcoal drawing or some jam that you make out of blueberries that you picked during the summer. It doesn't have to be expensive.

It could be something that you really think about, hmm, you know, I've noticed that her apron is a little bit tattered, maybe she would like a new apron. She loves flowers. Maybe she would like an apron with flowers. It doesn't have to be fancy. So that's the message in this book.

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The great career switch

I practiced law. In my last law job, I was the Director of Labor Relations at Universal Studios Hollywood. And it was my job to negotiate nine different union contracts, and deciding how much money people would make, how many vacation days they could take, and when they did something bad, like the driver who put a snake in his supervisor's office. I had to deal with it.

I was actually firing a lot of people. And one night I said to my husband, I think I'm becoming a mean person. And he said, uh-huh, yeah, you are. And I was making a ton of money at the time and I loved spending money, but I said to myself, is it really worth it? Is the money worth it? And the answer was no. And I wanted to do something more important with my life. And I thought, and I thought, and I couldn't think of anything more important than working with kids.

And so I ended up becoming a children's author because I was browsing in a book store, in a little teeny children's book store and looking for a gift for my cousin who was only two years old. I didn't yet have a child of my own. Looking for a gift for my cousin, and the next thing I knew I had an armload of picture books that I loved. Books for two year olds that I wanted to buy for myself. And the idea hit me.

Somebody wrote these books. Why can't I be one of those people? I didn't have any idea how to write a book or how to get it published, but I thought, you know, I want to give it a try. And I told my husband I want to do this for a year, see if I can get published. And if I can, then I'll keep on. And if I can't, then I'll go back to being a lawyer. And lucky for me, he said, you know, why don't you do it for a year and it doesn't matter if you get published.

Why don't you do it for a year, and if you love it — if you love it — then keep doing it. And at the end of the year I had a stack of rejection letters. Twenty-six rejection letters and I was so ready to give up. I felt like such a failure. But then I remembered what he said, and I did love writing, so I kept on writing and a year and a half past my self-imposed deadline (a year and a half after I got started), my first book, Good Luck Gold, was sold.

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The power of poetry

Something that not everyone knows is that I used to hate poetry. Actually, in fourth grade I really hated poetry. And I don't think it was because I knew poetry. I think it was because I hated having to memorize poems. I have a terrible memory. I hated having to memorize poems. I also hated having to read poems and pick them apart, analyze them, try to find the right answer. That really, really bothered me.

And so I thought I hated poetry, but I think what I hated was poetry homework. That's what I hated. And, anyway, so when I quit my law job to write, it never occurred me to write poetry. The thought never even occurred to me. And if someone had asked me, do you think you're going to write poetry, I would have said, no, I don't think so. Definitely not. But one day I was at a seminar, a Saturday seminar, "Everything You Need to Know to Write and Sell your Children's Book".

And I was there not to learn how to write (I thought I knew how to write), I was there to learn how to sell. I was there to listen to the editor speak at the end of the day about how she chose books to publish. So I was just sitting through and, you know, just not really paying attention to the speakers and Myra Cohn Livingston got up to speak. I had no idea who she was. Myra Cohn Livingston. The name meant nothing to me.

She got up, she said she was the author of over 80 books of poetry. And I thought, oh poetry. So I started doodling, looking out the window, not paying attention, and then Myra read a poem of hers called, "There Was a Place" from a book by the same name, There Was a Place. It's now out of print but you can find it in the library. She read the poem and I started blinking back tears. And I was thinking about my grandmother and how she looked in her hospital bed when she was dying.

And I thought, oh my goodness, if that little poem can make me feel so much inside, there's something I can learn from that woman. But it wasn't until 26 rejection letters later that I decided I did need to learn how to write. That maybe writing for children was a different skill than what I knew how to do, and that maybe if I learned about rhyme and repetition and rhythm, those poetic devices, then maybe I could write a picture book that would sell.

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The poetry suitcase

I think one way that poetry can be shared with kids, one easy way, one fun way, is with a poetry suitcase. And this requires no work on your part.

You tell your students or the classroom decides that they're gonna build a poetry suitcase, okay, and everyone in the class has the responsibility to bring in one poem written on an index card maybe. Because when you write it, it gets into your system much the same way that memorizing a poem gets into your system. So maybe everyone in the classroom has the responsibility to bring in one poem written on an index card.

And if that poem is about trees, tie that poem to a branch. If that poem is about rocks, tie that poem to a rock. If that poem is about dogs, maybe you'll tie that poem to a biscuit, to a dog bone. Okay? And then at the end of the week or however long you decide to take to do this, everyone will bring a poem and some thing tied to it, and put it in the suitcase. You'll have a poetry suitcase. And then five minutes a day, five minutes a day when everyone's got their backpacks on and you're ready to go but there you are stuck with each other, someone can pick something out of the suitcase.

Someone who's been really good that day can pick something out of the suitcase. Maybe, oh, maybe a certain boy will be really curious about what that cookie cutter goes to and will pick the cookie cutter out of the suitcase. And, oh, it will be tied to a poem. Maybe it will be tied to my poem, "Grandmother's Almond Cookies in the Suitcase of Seaweed". Or someone else might be really curious, hum, I wonder what that snake belongs to, and will pull out a rubber snake.

And maybe that poem will be tied to my poem, "In the Rainbow Hand", called "In Mother's Shadow", where I say she sees snakes before they move. You never know. It'll be a mystery. What does this thing go to? And that's an easy way to share poems. You could do it for five minutes a day, you could do it for one minute a day. And the bell will ring and everyone will leave happy with poems bouncing around in their minds.

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Twist

Twist was actually very fun because there's so many yoga poses and we had to decide which ones to put in. And I remembered I was good at the simple poses back when I used to do yoga. I could do "tree" very well and I liked doing "bridge." But there were some that I didn't know that Julie introduced me to because she does yoga every day, goes to yoga retreats for vacations.

And one that I didn't want to put in the book at first because I thought, oh, no, kids are going to do this and teachers are going to be upset and parents are going to be upset and they're going to go around doing this all the time, is a pose called "lion." It goes like this: Well, you know, how sometimes you get so tired, so tired you can't even talk, right. It's almost like your voice is stuck in your throat.

So this is the way you get rid of that tiredness. "Lion. Tiredness gets caught in your throat. Lion casts it out with a fierce exhale. Mouth wide open and lets it roll off his tongue." Okay, I'm going to show you the picture and then I'm going to do the pose. No, no, I'll just show you the pose. Okay. I tell kids you can even just do this sitting in your chair and you can do this even as fat as I am. You can still do this.

You breathe. Yoga's so much about breathing. You breathe. So say you breathe from one, two, three, you hold it in and then, hah. Oh, gosh, that's so embarrassing. But, you know, you can tell a lot about a person by the way their tongue looks. I hope my tongue isn't too pasty. You know, your tongue is supposed to look really pink and red, so hah. If it looks gray then you need to do something different with your life.

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Dumpster diving, anyone?

A lot of my stories come from personal experience, but some of them start just because of a little spark and idea that comes from something that I saw walking through a parking lot. Well, one day I was walking through a parking lot. This parking lot happened to have the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair in it at that moment. And I saw a chair, a wooden chair made out of skis.

And I said to the artist, where did you get the idea to make this chair? And he said, oh, I'm just a dumpster diver. And at that time I had no idea what that meant, I'm just a dumpster diver. And I thought that that was his own term that he had invented. And I said, oh, that's so clever. He must have thought, is she crazy or what? And I said, oh, that's so clever, can I use that term in a book? I would love to use that term.

And he said, sure. You know, I mean, it would be like asking someone, may I have your permission to write about Kleenex. So I wrote about a dumpster diver who pulls things out of the trash and uses some things as is and builds new creations out of little broken bits or found bits of this and that. And the first ten drafts or so — usually I write at least 10 drafts — and maybe up to 50 drafts of every story that I write.

But the first 10 drafts or so were just odes to dumpster diving where I was saying how great this was. Wow, you can walk by a bin and find something and use it? What a terrific thing. But then I realized…Well, then the mother kicked in because I am a mother and I thought to myself, oh no, how would I feel if my son, after reading this book, went and climbed into a dumpster, got all dirty, slimy, germy, and got hurt?

You know, there's broken glass, there's rusted metal, all kinds of disgusting things. And I thought, well, how would I feel? How would I feel if this book inspired him to do that or if it inspired some other kids? What if it inspired 10,000 kids to start climbing into dumpsters and then they all got hurt? So I decided I had to change the story. It could not be simply an ode to dumpster diving, that I had to have Steve the Dumpster Diver, Steve the Electrician, the dumpster diver who has the kids in the neighborhood help him out — he had to get hurt.

So I had him get hurt. But then that changed the whole story because all of a sudden him getting hurt, I had caused a problem and I had to solve it. So the story changed. And the way I solved it was that the kids in the book started going door to door and before people would throw their stuff, their junk into the dumpster, they would intercept it. So going door to door they would ask is there anything that you might want to get rid of — any useful junk. And in the book they end up making a present for Steve out of some useful junk that they collect door to door.

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Apple Pie Fourth of July

I wrote Apple Pie Fourth of July because my parents actually did own a minimart that sold Chinese food to go. This minimart that they owned was in rural Oregon. I was not a child at the time, but I…You know, you're always a child of your parents, right? You could be 35 years old, you're still the child of your parents. So when I would go to visit them and bring my son to go fishing with Grandpa, they would go fishing and I would work in the store.

And so I spent a fair amount of time in the store. And one day, well it happened to be Fourth of July, 1996, I called my father and he answered the phone, Tri-City Market. So I knew he was at the store. He had the same phone number for the house and for the store. So, Tri-City Market. I said, Hi Tri-City Market. Pretty slow today, huh? And he said, oh no, oh no, it's busy. It was the Fourth of July, right? He said, it's busy. I said, ice, matches?

Cause I was thinking, well, people are having barbecues, you know, what do they need. He said, oh now, Chinese food. I said, Chinese food? Hello? And I actually said to him, hello, do you know what day it is today? This is the Fourth of July, an all-American holiday. People are cooking burgers, hot dogs, and you're cooking Chinese food? And he said, yeah, and it's busy and I got to go, bye. And he hung up the phone.

And I thought, oh, I never would have imagined, in rural Oregon, in a county where there are only a handful of Asians, that Chinese food-to-go would sell. And so I wrote Apple Pie Fourth of July as my apology, as my public apology, because in the book, the girl in the beginning is glum. She can't believe her parents are so un-American as to cook Chinese food on this all-American holiday.

And yet by the end of the book she's really surprised because the community, the people in the community have come in and they're buying Chinese food. They're buying Chinese food-to-go. And, you know, I think that there, again, authors are not supposed to have 'message-y' books and we're not supposed to be preachy, but I am really happy that I was able to put a message in that book. And to me the message is twofold: On the one hand, to the child who feels left out — and it doesn't have to be to a child who feels left out because she's Chinese, all right — but to a child who feels left out, the message is: look around. Look around. Maybe you're not as quite as alone as you think. Maybe you don't really stick out. Maybe you do have something to offer. And then the message to the community, to the people around that child is, go ahead and surprise people, you know?

Do the unexpected. Look around. Embrace your community. Seek out what's different and new and try it.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables