Janet S. Wong (1962-)
Janet S. Wong is an Asian-American children's poet whose works employ a variety of voices and poetic styles to explore her own heritage. Born in the United States, Wong is the daughter of a Korean-born mother and a Chinese-born father, and all three cultures have found a place in her books. In a review of the 1994 work Good Luck Gold and Other Poems in Voice of Youth Advocates, Anthony Manna referred to Wong as "a fresh new talent" who has "distinctive gifts as a consciously cultural poet."
Good Luck Gold is a collection of forty-two poems told from the point of view of Asian-American children, offering insight into their lives. Written in rhyme, free verse, haiku, and other styles, the pieces explore everyday subjects such as food and shopping, as well as deeper topics, including racism, illness, and divorce. Several reviewers expressed the overall impression that Good Luck Gold is a powerful, positive contribution to Asian-American poetry for young people. Manna commented that the best pieces in this work are "characterized by technical competence and genuine emotional force." Writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Deborah Stevenson noted that the book will be enjoyable to children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Wong continued to explore her own mixed background in A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems, published in 1996. The book is divided into three sections of poems—Korean, Chinese, and American—representing the poet's identity. As Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis pronounced, "the quiet, lyric poems acknowledge proudly, subtly, and with occasional touches of irony and humor the distinct strands within the weave of cultures of which she is a part." Each section is introduced with a short personal memoir; Hazel Rochman commented in Booklist that these are "as interesting as the poems." As in Good Luck Gold, the pieces are often written from a child's point of view and explore topics such as family relations—particularly those between parent and child—and the poet's deeper Asian roots. Reviewers commented that many of her subjects are universal and will be appreciated by children from all backgrounds.
Wong followed early works with several volumes of poetry that each explored a certain theme, including The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children, Behind the Wheel: Poems about Driving, and Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams. Motherhood and the relationships between mothers and their children is the focus of The Rainbow Hand. As both a mother and a child, Wong has a variety of personal experiences from which to draw. There are eighteen poems in the collection, and "all of them hold a kernel of truth that readers of all ages will recognize," as GraceAnne A. DeCandido wrote in Booklist. Behind the Wheel examines issues of self and family through the lens of cars and driving. The poems deal with a range of driving-related issues, from learning to drive to car crashes to hitchhikers. Roger Sutton, writing in Horn Book, observed that "the timeworn idea that 'driving is like life' is simply a given here, and Wong relies on telling particulars rather than heavy universals." Although this book is aimed primarily toward young adults, in a Booklist review, Gillian Engberg concluded that "readers of all ages will be moved by the intersection of poignancy and humor" in Behind the Wheel. In Night Garden, Wong explores different types of dreams, both good and bad, and the feelings that they evoke. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that "Wong's quiet yet haunting words skillfully simulate the reveries they recount," and Barbara Chatton, writing for School Library Journal, noted that these poems would inspire children to "enjoy capturing their own dreams and giving them shape and meaning."
Picture books for young readers proved to be another natural outlet for Wong's poetry. Two of these, Buzz and Grump, focus on babies and their reactions to the world around them. In Buzz, a young child listens to the busy morning of the household around him. Everything, including a bumblebee outside, Daddy's electric razor, Mommy's hair dryer, and the coffee grinder, seems to be contributing to one great big buzz. Writing for Booklist, Kathy Broderick called Buzz "a great sensory experience for very young children." A tired, grumpy new mother in desperate need of a nap is the subject of Grump. While Mommy is at the end of her rope, Baby is wide awake and not quite ready for naptime. A Publishers Weekly review noted that young children might not understand the ironic theme of the book, but that it "should strike a chord with frazzled mothers of toddlers." In a review for School Library Journal, Joy Fleishhacker praised the "poetic yet accessible text" and called Wong's language "inviting and fun to read aloud."
Three of Wong's picture books involve children exploring and reacting to their families' ethnic backgrounds. The Trip Back Home, inspired by Wong's own childhood experiences visiting family in Korea, tells of a young American girl taken to visit her grandparents and aunt in a rural Korean village. The girl joins into the family's daily routine, and her sensory experiences in this new place are described. School Library Journal critic Wendy Lukehart called it "a gentle celebration of family bonds," and praised the interplay between Wong's text and Bo Jia's watercolor illustrations. In This Next New Year, a Chinese-Korean boy tells how he and his friends from various backgrounds celebrate the lunar new year. Gillian Engberg, writing in Booklist, found "optimistic activity and . . . yearning in the accessible, rhythmic text." Patriotism and what it means to be American are the subjects of Apple Pie Fourth of July. A Chinese-American girl helps her parents prepare and sell Chinese food at their store on the Fourth of July, all the while warning them that no one will buy it on such an American holiday and resenting her separation from the community around her. By evening, though, the girl is surprised and proud to discover people lining up to eat Chinese food on the Fourth of July, and the day ends with the family eating apple pie with neighbors while watching fireworks. In Booklist, Engberg called the book "an appealing story with believable characters and emotions" that explore issues of identity and belonging.
Wong once told SATA: "Since the time I was supposed to have learned all about fractions and decimals, I have known I would not be a mathematician. I knew, too, I never would be a neurosurgeon, which my father once wanted me to be. But I never thought I would be a poet, either. As far as I can remember—and at least since fourth grade—I remember hating poetry. I can't say, honestly, that I read much of it, but I did not like what I read—especially when I had to read it aloud! So why do I write poetry now?
"One Saturday in September 1991 I attended a workshop on writing for children. Myra Cohn Livingston, one of the speakers . . . recited the title poem from her book There Was a Place and Other Poems. . . . The next thing I knew, I was blinking back tears. What a powerful piece of writing!
"I like poems that are not afraid to talk about painful things. I like poems that make you laugh, or cry; poems that grab you and make you read them again; poems that make you think.
"Poetry is, in a way, like shouting. Since you can't yell at the top of your lungs for a very long time, you have to decide what you really need to say, and say it quickly. In a way, too, I suppose, poetry is like math. An idea for a poem is a problem that needs to be solved—and for me, the fun is in finding an answer."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 15, 1994, p. 600; April 1, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems, p. 1362; April 1, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children, p. 1412; January 1, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Behind the Wheel: Poems about Driving, p. 913; July, 2000, Kathy Broderick, review of Buzz, p. 2044; September 15, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of This Next New Year, p. 251; August, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Apple Pie Fourth of July, p. 1963; November 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Knock on Wood: Poems about Superstitions, p. 596.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Good Luck Gold and Other Poems, p. 181; April, 1996, p. 282.
Horn Book, July-August, 1996, Nancy Vasilakis, review of A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems,, p. 475; November, 1999, Roger Sutton, review of Behind the Wheel, p. 755; September-October, 2003, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Knock on Wood, p. 624.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2000, review of Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams, p. 84; January 1, 2001, review of Grump, p. 91.
School Library Journal, January, 1995, p. 133; March, 2000, Barbara Chatton, review of Night Garden, p. 232; December, 2000, Wendy Lukehart, review of The Trip Back Home, p. 128; March, 2001, Joy Fleish-hacker, review of Grump, p. 224; December, 2003, Margaret Bush, review of Knock on Wood, p. 140.
Teaching and Learning Literature, March-April, 1997, pp. 62-70.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1995, Anthony Manna, "Should We Read (More) Poetry (More Often)?: Seven New Collections Tell Why," pp. 201-203; October, 1996, Anthony Manna, review of A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems, pp. 241-242.
Janet S. Wong Home Page, http://www.janetwong.com/ (January 15, 2004).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Carlos Watson Biography - Was a Student Journalist to Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) BiographyJanet S. Wong (1962-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Work in Progress