Object Connections: Janet Wong’s Poetry

Last week, I had an opportunity to attend a poetry workshop presented by Janet Wong and sponsored by Rutgers University Center for Literacy Development, which is directed by Dr. Lesley Morrow.  Janet won the NCTE excellence in children’s Poetry Award in 2021.  It is a lifetime achievement award, and one of the highest honors a children’s poet can receive.   Before becoming a poet, Janet was a lawyer.  Currently, she serves on the Yale Law School executive committee.  However, decades ago she decided to change the direction of her life to become a children’s book author.  She has published over forty books for children and teens on diverse subjects. This workshop was special to me because, as a member of the advisory board of RUCLD, I had been asked to help Janet throughout the day. I have always admired Janet, and now I got to spend the day with her.

Janet brought two large suitcase of props: flip-flops, popcorn, marshmallows, nori seaweed snacks, gummy worms, a rubber duck, a bunch of bananas, a bag of just-ripe avocados, a can of peas, an apple, an orange, an onion, a clove of garlic, and much more.  As she read poems and told the stories behind the poems, Janet would give away objects as gifts to the audience members.  This is where my job began.  I put on my best “Vanna White” imitation – holding objects up in the air, smiling, and then racing around the conference space delivering the precious objects to participants.

One poem that Janet acted out for us and had participants act out in turn was “Noodle Soup.”  It is a short, happy rhyming poem. From the repetition, alliteration, and whimsical rhyme, one would think it was just a funny kid poem.   However, Janet told us the story behind this poem.  When she was a child, she invited her best friend over for breakfast.  Her mother made a steaming pot of wonton soup, Janet’s favorite. When her friend arrived late, she looked at the soup and said, “Don’t you eat ‘normal’ food for breakfast?”  This hurt Janet immensely, but she never told her friend.                    

Another of Janet’s poems, “Waiting at the Railroad Café,” recounts a tense scene when Janet and her family were on vacation and went to restaurant to eat.  When the family entered, it was like they were invisible.  They weren’t greeted or taken to a seat.  They weren’t given menus.  They were completely ignored because they were Asian.  That experience made a profound impact on Janet.

These two poems come from Good Luck Gold, which was the first book Janet published in 1994.  Good Luck Gold & More was published in 2021 and took Janet’s original forty-two poem collection and added fifty more pages of prose explaining the backstory of each poem.  I loved that Janet took everyday objects and connected them to times in her life. Out of that connection a poem was born.  Many times we read poems but do not know the backstory.  The backstory creates context and gives us a deeper understanding of the poem.

After her large group presentation, participants were able to attend a small group session with Janet.  That session was designed to give participants a chance to write.  Janet and I stacked copies of her various poems and spread a majority of the contents of her two large suitcases onto four long tables.  As a warm-up, Janet asked us to match her poems with the objects that were displayed around the room.  Then, Janet asked us to choose an object and write a poem about it.  As we shared our poems, Janet gave away more objects to the poet-participants.  It was clear that Janet has a generous spirit: she gave her time and knowledge freely. She enjoyed gifting people with the objects she had lugged from Seattle, Washington to Piscataway, New Jersey.

Below is the poem I wrote for my object – a small yellow rubber duck.  The poem came to me as I remembered my friend, Arman, telling me how his son, Caram, did not like water and bath time at all.  He would cry and cry.  So I re-imagined how Caram could become in love with bath time.

As we packed up what was left of her belongings into now one suitcase, Janet encouraged me to keep writing and to join her summer initiative, Think Poetry, which will provide opportunities for teachers and librarians to publish their poems.  As we departed, Janet stacked cookies, popcorn, and Nori seaweed snacks in my arms.

“Put them in your faculty room,” she said with a smile. “I couldn’t have had a more helpful partner today. We are a good team.”

I smiled, thanked her, and walked to my car juggling my teacher treats.  Janet not only connected people to objects and experiences, she connected people to each other, and that is the true power of poetry.

Some Books by Janet Wong

Picture Books

  1. Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
  2. Apple Pie 4th of July
  3. This Next New Year
  4. You Have to Write
  5. Homegrown House
  6. Me and Rolly Maloo

Poetry Books

  1. A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems
  2. A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE
  3. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving
  4. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year
  5. Good Luck Gold and Other Poems
  6. Gold Luck Gold & More
  7. Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions
  8. Once Upon A Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals
  9. Night Garden: Poems from The World of Dreams
  10. The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children
  11. Twist: Yoga Poems

Anthologies Created with Sylvia Vardell

  1. Dear One: A Tribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins
  2. GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
  3. HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving
  4. The Poetry Friday Anthology Series
  5. You Just Wait – The Poetry Friday Power Book Series

Grateful Writer

Before I could write, I loved to tell stories.  I told stories to anyone who would listen.  I loved to listen to other people’s stories too.  I was a master eavesdropper by the time I was four.  I loved the warp and weft of the words people told.  It seemed like pure genius.  Words came together and made people laugh, surprised them, and sometimes made them cry.  Words were a way for me to express my emotions, and I had so many emotions rushing at me when I was a child.  The way I managed them was to write.  The way I could understand my world was to write.  The way to make order and feel safe was to write.

As soon as I could hold a pencil in my hand, I drew stories and then eventually began to write.  I wrote all the names of the people in my family, made lists of all my stuffed animals, wrote poems, and then wrote stories about everything and everyone.  I never ran out of ideas.  I always had something to say.  If I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t thinking; I wasn’t living.  But I was an undisciplined writer.  I wrote sporadically as if some kind of divine intervention had to happen.  The poem would just plunk itself down from the sky.  And I would be satisfied for a week or so until another poem would fly in from the open window.  I have boxes and boxes of half-written in journals. Throughout my school experience, I was praised as a writer.  It was a place where I could shine.  I never felt afraid when I was writing.  I had some success at having some poems and articles published through the years.

However, it wasn’t until two years ago, when Ruth Ayres invited me to join SOS: Sharing our Stories that I began to write consistently.  I would post every week and that was so good for me.  I read other bloggers and began to make connections. Last year, I came across Stacey Shubitz’s TWT: Slice of Life March Challenge.  And honestly I thought, “Are they crazy? I can’t write every day!”  So, I tried but I only posted 5 or 6 times.  I wondered,  “How on earth could anyone write every day? Didn’t they know I was busy?”

 This year, something changed.  I got rid of “busy” and started to focus on what is most important to me.  When this year’s SOL Challenge came, I was ready.  I set my invention to sit and write every day.  I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did.  I learned so much from this experience. I created pieces that would never have been written because I wrote every single day.  I plan to keep this up past March.  I don’t think I will post every day, but I will certainly write every day. 

I am so grateful to Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz for providing platforms where teacher-writers can share their work.  I’ve learned so much from them and so much from fellow bloggers. I love connecting with people who share my passion for the pen (pencil, keyboard) – for the wild, poignant stories.

I wrote a poem years ago as part of a poetry novel I hope to finish this year, since I think I’ve finally made a break through with my battle with consistency.  It expresses how much writing is a part of my life.  I don’t know how people get through the day without reading, writing, or art.  It doesn’t seem possible to me.

Like Breathing

When we are alone,
My mother hands me a present
Wrapped in brilliant blue.
I rip it open to reveal
A brand-new journal.
It’s suede, the color of new earth,
It smells of earth too, comforting,
Tied together with strong leather strings
And small brass beads.
I look up at my mother to thank her,
She puts one arm around my shoulder,
Holds me close and whispers,
“Just keep writing -
Just keep writing,” she says.
But she does not say it
Like my teachers would,
Not just keep writing because I have to,
It’s an assignment – I will be graded.
Punctuation counts, spelling counts,
Not just keep writing – like it’s good for me,
Like it’s medicine or spinach -
But just keep writing because it’s part of me,
Like breathing in air and exhaling,
Because it keeps me alive,
Because it connects me to the world,
Because it keeps me sane
It is my life – I need to live it,
My feelings count,
Memories count.

Ever so grateful to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing Our Stories! #PEACE for Ukraine

Welcome Spring!

The sun is shining, birds gather to sing, and spring is finally here. This morning, my heart is a bit lighter; my mind a bit clearer.  I can push world events away for just a little while.  I can revel in the time when the earth becomes renewed. The woodland animals are coming out of their winter stupor.  I am beginning to feel a little more hopeful.  I too can turn my face to the sunshine and feel restored.  It is a day to celebrate.  Go out into nature, find beauty, and rejoice.

A little song to celebrate this day and the earth’s resilience.  Welcome spring!

Awaken the Peas

Upon the earth, the sun shines down 
Each ray, a warm delight.
Each tiny seed rests and waits 
Until the time is right.

The sun’s steady light
Begins to warm and spread,
Awakening each little seed
From its frosty bed.

Awaken the peas 
from their round green beds
Remind them spring is coming,
Tell each raindrop to kiss their heads
And set the bees a-humming.

Thank you to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing our Stories for their creative outlet and support.

What Little Girls are Made of

Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment,

toughness, heart, talent, guts.

That’s what little girls are made of.

Bethany Hamilton, Soul Surfer

For almost twenty years, I have worked in an all girls school. Every morning I wake up, get dressed, drive to work, grab a cup of coffee on the way, and arrive at school. When I walk down the corridors, I am greeted by a variety of girls, ages three to eleven. They wear colorful leggings, light-up sneakers, unicorn headbands, wild curls and long twisted braids. They come in all shapes, shades, and sizes. And they are the hope we need in this world, especially right now. These girls dance, make marble mazes out of masking tape and construction paper, solve fraction problems, and write poetry. These girls paint with bright splashy colors, read graphic novels, make oozy green slime that sparkles, and sing like angels. They are creative, curious, and athletic. They are cheerful and face the world unafraid. They will try anything and laugh while doing it. They are the reason I come to school each and every morning.

Today I celebrate girls. Back when I was a little girl, girls were supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice.” I didn’t always fit that description. I was always on the move, both in mind and body. I did not sit still at all except when I was reading or writing. Then my mind would wander off into amazing places. A few years ago, I came across a book of poetry, A Maze Me by Naomi Shihab Nye. It is a wonderful collection of poems that captures the essence of being a girl. I love this collection and often share the poems with my students. I was so inspired by Ms. Nye’s work that I thought I’d try my hand at some poems about girlhood. I started to put together a small collection called – What Girls are Made of. Here is a selection.

Blue Mohair

It’s funny how a piece of clothing
Can hold a memory - 
My blue mohair sweater
With large, shiny blue buttons,
A hand-me-down from my sister -
So fuzzy and soft, the shade of blue 
I imagine Heaven to be.

That mohair sweater
I wore when I was ten,
The day my father brought me 
To the ASPCA,
Bought me a seven dollar dog -
A little black and white terrier with a curly tail,
I’d yearned for - for years!
The look of surprise on my mother’s face
When I came home with my new puppy
Nestled in my arms,
His wet nose peeking out from that
Warm mohair sweater -
Surely I was in dog heaven.

Babysitter’s Blues

When Barbara, 
our babysitter, comes
We are so happy,
She plays with us and
NEVER tires,
She makes us spaghetti 
With tiny meatballs
And let’s us have
An extra cookie.

Tonight we play
Go Fish, Old Maid,
And Hangman,
She brings art supplies:
Paper and bright blue ink
She says we have to
We dip our brushes in 
Gently paint the paper.

I am so ecstatic
The blue glides
Across the paper:
Blue sky,
Blue snow,
Blue house,
Blue trees,
My excited hand
Knocks the bottle over
Soon there is a
Blue puddle
Blue pond
Blue lake
Blue river
Blue waterfall
Down the table
Onto the white carpet.

Barbara dives
For napkins, sponges,
Paper towels,
My sister and I 
Blot the table
Toss our blue worlds
Into the trash
We scrub the table
And chairs until
There is no trace of blue
We look at Barbara
Blotting the blue pool
That remains on the carpet
It gets lighter and lighter
But will never be white again.
I cry blue tears,
And so does my sister,
And so does Barbara.
Oh woe is me -
For woefully Mom will soon
Be home to hear and see,
Our babysitter’s blues.


Summer sleepover
Eight girls crammed
Into a camper
Parked in Kathy’s backyard
So we won’t disturb
Her neighbors, her parents, 
Her baby brother.
The camper rocks with excitement
As we roll out our sleeping bags
And claim our spaces
We crowd around 
The tine kitchen table 
Filled with chips, dips, pretzels,
Salsa, soda, and candy.
Crunching and slurping
Talking and laughing
Telling scary stories
Playing Truth or Dare
Dare you to run around
The outside of the camper 
Alone at midnight
Flashlights cast an eerie light
Making our faces ominous.
I step bravely outside alone
In my pajamas and bare feet,
Run around the camper panting
Inside girls are giggling
The neighbor’s dog growls
From behind the hedge
I let out a blood-curdling scream,
Seven girls inside shrieking
Lights come on!
Neighbors waking,
Parents yelling,
It’s late, go to sleep!
We finally quiet down,
Huddled together,
Whispering for hours,
Never sleeping.


Power to Pause

This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases.  They begged to be placed into poetry.  January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry.  Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.

Icarus Found: A Poem Remembered

Recently, my husband and I traveled south to visit family for the holidays. As he has done on all our road trips, my husband curates music, radio shows, and intersperses his own running monologues critiquing economics, art, fitness trends, and politics as I drive..  He is indeed a Renaissance man. As he talked, he mentioned Icarus in passing.  At once, words popped into my head, and I recited to him:  “Falling, falling, falling – down through the distant sky – like Icarus on melted wings – Never asking why.” 

            “Oh, that’s good,”  my husband replied, “Where’s that from?” 

            I laughed, “From me.  I wrote that in college. It’s part of a longer poem.  But I had forgotten all about it until now.”

My husband went on with his story.  I tried to pay attention, but my lost poem kept rolling around in my mind.  It had been published in my college literary magazine,  Cul-de-sac. At the time, I thought being published in the Cul-de-sac and being part of the editorial board was the height of literary success. I had kept several clippings but had lost them all in subsequent moves.  This was long before the Internet and all things digital, and I had tossed out all my college notebooks on some impetuous whim.  In my twenties, I was not aware of the need to keep memories.  Now, in my sixties recalling memories and emotions is a sacred, almost devotional act.

I began recreating the poem silently in my head as I drove.  It was had three stanzas maybe four.  I couldn’t remember the exact words, but as I recited it my head, I got closer and closer to the original poem.  The rhythm of the road helped me to remember.  As the words came to me, in a short time so did  my  emotions. I thought about why I wrote that poem; all the loneliness and insecurity I felt came rushing back.  Though being sixty-five is certainly not a cakewalk, I don’t think I would want to be twenty again.  Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have my twenty-year-old skin, hair, knees, and back but not my twenty-year-old self-loathing that I have worked forty-five years to overcome.

My twenty-year-old poet-self wanted so much out of the world, wanted to do so much, and I felt so unprepared.  I was so desolate and so hopeful at the same time. I guess that’s the nature of twenty-something. At the time, I was taking a course on Ibsen.  We read one of his early poems as a prelude to his play, The Master Builder.  I was struck how his poem, written thirty-four  years earlier, connected to the essential message of his play.

I was very painfully aware of how ambition and desire were a dangerous mix.  I was not at all sure how  to build a strong artistic identity.  I think I am still struggling with that.  I create work – sometimes hiding it and sometimes presenting or publishing  it.  However, I think I have used teaching as a safety net.  If I fall, teaching could always save me.  Now, I’m facing the end years of my teaching career.  The art and writing are still strong within me. And that poem that I wrote forty-five years ago, still remains true.

Your Own Best Mother

Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.

I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.

When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.

Dream Mother

I take another glance 
at my alarm clock,
It's four  in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in 
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.

Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.

I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag 
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.

We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice  there are 
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."

Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
Happy Mother’s Day: Be Good to Yourself

Spring Offering

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me.  This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week.  It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was.  She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her.  I would have done so anyway.  Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh.  She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have!  The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures.  I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.

Spring Prayer

Sunday morning,
Walking up the steep,
Winding path
Through the cathedral
Of flowers,
I breathe in 
Their fragrance,
Take in 
their vivid color
And let out a slow
Deep breath.
I am present
To God’s glorious
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
Rabbits rustles 
In the undergrowth,
Birds on the branches sing,
My soul takes flight.

The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week.   Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form.  It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem.  It is a seed from which the poem grows.  It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words.  The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.

Three Golden Shovel Poems

The Earth Laughs in Flowers. –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.

Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson

April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does 
this garden restore my hope.

With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler

Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming 
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm 
Spring is within me again.