Transcript from an interview with Janet Wong

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Janet Wong. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Janet Wong

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 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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"A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket." — Chinese Proverb