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
- Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
- Apple Pie 4th of July
- This Next New Year
- You Have to Write
- Homegrown House
- Me and Rolly Maloo
- A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems
- A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE
- Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving
- Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year
- Good Luck Gold and Other Poems
- Gold Luck Gold & More
- Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions
- Once Upon A Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals
- Night Garden: Poems from The World of Dreams
- The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children
- Twist: Yoga Poems
Anthologies Created with Sylvia Vardell
- Dear One: A Tribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins
- GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
- HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving
- The Poetry Friday Anthology Series
- You Just Wait – The Poetry Friday Power Book Series