Friday, April 6, 2012

Interview with Poet Janet Wong & a Book Giveaway--Happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy Campers!

Today, Class, to celebrate both Poetry Friday and National Poetry Month, we've invited a very special visitor: my dear friend, amazing human, poet and teaching author, Janet S. Wong (Yay--applause!) 

I've known Janet since we were in classes taught by poet Myra Cohn Livingston during the Pleistocene epoch.  Among other accomplishments, Janet and her co-editor, Sylvia Vardell, have revolutionized the way poetry is published in their Poetry Tag Time eAnthologies.  And in honor of our upcoming 3rd (!) Blogiversary (April 22nd), Janet has generously donated THREE copies of her timely book, Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year. Read more about the book and details on how to enter to win your own autographed copy below.

Our friendship is not why I've invited her today.  Janet is a force of nature in the world of children's poetry--that's why I wanted you to meet her today.

Janet S. Wong looking calm, peaceful, even--hiding the dynamo within
Janet is the author of a gazillion books for children and teens. She has been honored with the Claremont Stone Center Recognition of Merit, the IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, and by her appointments to the NCTE Commission on Literature and the NCTE Excellence in Children's Poetry Award committees. She currently serves on the IRA Notable Books for a Global Society award committee. A frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences, Wong  has been featured on CNN, Fine Living’s Radical Sabbatical, and The Oprah Winfrey Show and has performed at the White House. (!!)
Janet's house. 
Ha ha. 
1) How did you officially become a TeachingAuthor?
I had my first “teaching author” gig in May 1994, four months before my first book, Good Luck Gold, was published. On a Friday I got a call from a bookseller who had heard me speak and wondered if I would visit a middle school near LAX. An author who was scheduled for Monday had canceled. Could I fill his spot? Three days later, I walked into an auditorium of 700 seventh graders. I introduced myself, read a poem about race discrimination, “Waiting at the Railroad Cafe,” and was greeted with thunderous (truly, thunderous!) applause.

After the assembly, kids said: “I like your poems because I know they’re real.” What an amazing feeling of accomplishment at having connected with those kids! I knew that I wanted school visits to be a big part of my life as an author.

2) What's a common problem/question that your students have and how do you address it?
The most common problem: what to write about. I want to teach kids that their own everyday experiences--even seemingly trivial ones--can be good material. I’ll read a handful of poems and talk about the stories behind the them: why I wrote about my dad’s anger, why I wrote about noodles for breakfast, why I wrote about hiking in the woods. Some of the kids must wonder: “That’s good enough for a book? But then you could write about anything!” Exactly! You don’t have to have an “exciting” dream-filled life in order to write. I also want kids to write just for practice, just for fun, at home. Write an ode to cookies that is so mouth-watering good, it will inspire a mom to say, “Yes, we should bake some cookies today!” I want kids to know that they have the power to make good things happen with their words.

video credit: Bettie Parsons Barger

3) Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
My most successful writing exercise is a simile exercise that I usually do when I visit schools. Here it is, broken into 10 steps.

Step #1, Introduce Similes: I introduce similes before they even know that an exercise is coming. Showing--not telling--what a simile poem is, I read “Dad” from Good Luck Gold (my dad as a turtle, hiding in his tough shell), and sometimes also “Sisters” from A Suitcase of Seaweed (sisters who are opposites, like fiery ginger and soft tofu) and “The Onion” from The Rainbow Hand (mom as an onion; you cut her and yet you cry).

Step #2, Describe the Prompt: I say: Take someone in your family (mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin) and turn that person into a plant, animal, or object--but don’t make the mistake I made with calling my dad a snapping turtle--make it a loving idea, an idea that can become a gift poem.

Step #3, Give Examples: I share examples. From a 6th grade girl in Los Angeles: “My mother is like braces; she can be a pain to deal with, but she straightens me out.” From a 5th grader in Seattle: “My mother is like glasses; she helps me to see things more clearly.” From a 3rd grader in Texas: “My aunt is so sweet, she is like candy.” (Me: “What kind of candy? A cool peppermint? A tough red rope?” Her: “Well, she’s kind of . . . nutty, so I guess she’d be a Hershey’s bar with almonds.”)

Step #4, Think for a Minute: Too often kids are thrown into a quick-write with zero idea of what to write (and of course they panic). I have them sit and think for a minute--no writing. While they’re thinking, I’ll make a few additional suggestions, pointing to things in the room. “Do you know someone who is very bright?” (pointing to a light) “Do you know someone who is full of stories?” (pointing to a book) “Someone who gives you energy?” (pointing to an electrical outlet)

Step #5, Draw for a Minute:
Drawing for the group, I show how you can change a negative idea into a positive one if you imagine that there’s a “video in your mind” and you let it run. What starts out as a rain cloud might turn into a sunny scene with a rainbow, transforming the idea of a stormy mom into one who is just a bit moody, like spring weather.
I also like to show that there’s more than one way to draw something. For instance, if you draw a rose one way, you might think of a perfect rose, a gift of love. Or you could draw the whole bush and it might help you think of a grandmother as an old-fashioned climbing rose with deep roots.
Step #6, Share Ideas: For the next several minutes, I invite kids to share their ideas aloud so that the whole group can hear. I tell kids that if I pick them, I want to be able to use their idea for my own poem, and also want them to allow other kids (who might not like their ideas) to use their idea, too. This is yet another way of making sure that every student has something positive to write about.During this sharing portion I help students fine-tune (or change) their ideas, especially in terms of making them “more loving.” For instance, if a boy says his sister is a pig, I’ll say, “Is she very intelligent? Pigs are very intelligent creatures. They are strong, sturdy, not fussy, they are good in groups and give their lives to us. Is your sister this way?” After seeing that a negative idea fails to get the shocking reaction they’re after, these kids with less-than-loving ideas often surprise with moving poems on a completely different subject.

Step #7, Suggest Music: Rather than just say, “Now write a poem,” I give a one-minute lesson on rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. I ask them to “put a little music in the poem”--and we’re off!

Step #8, Write: I write at the same time as the kids. Using chart paper or the board, I let students see me struggle with their same writing exercise, crossing words out, making a “sloppy copy,” and then a second very different draft. Kids who don’t know where to start can see that I plunged in and started my first draft quite simply--just “my cousin is like a [something].” Not all of them start their poems this way, but I think it takes the pressure off them if they can copy my format. I’ll usually write a second draft during the same five minutes and will deliberately try to make it very different (but still on the same subject).
 Janet Wong with students at Heritage School in Newnan, GA. 
Photo by Marianne Richardson

Step #9, Evaluate:
I don’t ask, “Did anyone write a good poem?” Instead I ask, “Is there anyone who wrote something--start of a poem, part of a poem, whole poem--that is better than you thought it would be?” This is key: having the courage to try, especially when you’re not inspired, and being happy when you can surprise yourself. I also point out that a poem can be short and still be good by reading my poem “Down Dog” from TWIST: Yoga Poems. That poem is only 14 words long, but one of my own favorites.

Step #10, Share the Poems:
It’s important that we make time for children to share their poems by reading them aloud. It takes less than 30 seconds for most children to read a poem aloud. I like to point out favorite parts of poems but also lines where the child could add or change a few words to give a head start on a revision.

4) What one piece of advice do you have for teachers?
Pick exercises that have “real world meaning” for you. The week before the birthday of your mom, your husband, or your child, have all the kids write a birthday poem for someone in their families. If you love gardening, bring in a bunch of gardening catalogs and have kids scour them for found poems. Create an e-book anthology as a fundraiser and earn money for a classroom party, field trip, or your library. If your writing exercises have some sort of real world meaning for you and your students, the enthusiasm will be genuine and infectious.

5) Can you share a funny (or interesting) story with our readers?

I did a drop-in Q & A at a high school where a student once asked, “How much money do you make?” When I told him the sad truth, he stood up and left the room. I guess it wasn’t worth his time to sit and listen to someone who makes as little as 10 cents per book! This made me realize how important it is to make writing seem profitable to kids.

The reality is that very few authors make a “good” income. But writing, as a skill, can help people make millions and “live rich.” Kids perk up when I explain that a good sportswriter can go to the Super Bowl or World Series for free. You can drive a Ferrari one week and a Lamborghini the next if you are a car reviewer. The suggestion they love the most: developing video games. In Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer, Jake carries a notebook in his pocket because he wants to capture ideas that pop into his head--ideas for video games. I tell kids about a video game developer who once told me that “the writer is the most important person on a video game team.” Before illustrators go wild, before programmers get practical, first you need a story: a setting, characters, and a basic plot (Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 in a game).
6) What's on the horizon for you?
More e-books! I love the freedom: you think of an idea, you write it, and a week later the e-book is out, on Kindles and iPads all over the world. It’s exciting to look at the royalties and to see that an e-book has sold in Australia or Ireland.

7) And finally, since it's Poetry Friday in the Kidlitosphere, do you have a poem you'd like to share with our readers?

I’d like to share the poem “Liberty” from my new book Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year, available both as an e-book and in paperback. If you like this poem, please look at its blog,

by Janet Wong

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
for liberty
and justice
for all.
poem and drawings (c) 2012 Janet Wong all rights reserved

That is one of my favorite poems, Janet. And I love the different ways you engage elementary through high schoolers (and adults, too) about elections in the book, including a Voters Journal and Discussion Guide ("If you were a dog, what kinds of promises would you want to hear from your mayor?") 

I'm thrilled you stopped by!  We'll be following your blogs and gobbling up your new hold-in-your-hand books, eBooks and eAnthologies!

This is April speaking now: before we get to Janet's Book Giveaway, I'm asking you with big puppy dog eyes to stop by and read an original dog poem a day on my Poetry Month blog

Eli has just performed surgery on his friend, Squirrel.

AND, in honor of Poetry Month, Easter, and all things rabbity, we’ve just e-published TO RABBITOWN
the first picture book I ever had published (by Scholastic). It’s a free-verse fantasy (gorgeously illustrated by Robin Spowart) about a child who runs away to live with rabbits and slowly turns into one. To Rabbittown is available on Kindle and Nook (both just 99 cents)…and I’ll upload it to iTunes for iPads soon (wish me luck) ~

And now, without further delay, here's your chance to win one of three autographed copies of Janet's marvelous and timely, Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year

Before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then answer the following question:  If you're our winner, would you keep the book for yourself or pass it along to a young reader, and if so, to whom? (Don't worry about sounding selfish--who wouldn't want to own a book of election poems during this exciting year?)

You may either post your answer as a comment below or email your answer to teachingauthors at gmail dot com with "Contest" in the subject line. If you enter via a comment, you MUST include a valid email address (formatted like: teachingauthors at gmail dot com) or a link to an email address where we can reach you. Your entry must be posted or received by 11 p.m. April 19, 2012 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced on Friday, April 20, 2012. G'luck!

Poetry Friday is hosted by
Robyn Hood Black at Read, Write, Howl
 ~ thanks, Robyn! ~
~ and remember to write with joy ~


Author Amok said...

Good morning, April and Janet. My favorite piece of advice from Janet is to point out the perks of writing to kids. My brother happens to be a video game designer -- yes, he writes the storylines for the games.

I am starting a poetry residency at a very diverse school next week. If I were the giveaway winner, I would donate "Poems for an Election Year" to Swansfield ES in Columbia -- a National Poetry Month gift!

GatheringBooks said...

Hi there April (and Janet), this is such an amazing post in so many levels. I have read a few of Janet's poems and I just checked our community library, we do have Rainbow Hands. Will reserve soon.

Betsy Hubbard said...

I loved reading all about her process for teaching. I was sucked in and wished I was sitting on a hard floor with paper in hand listening to her, creating!

If I won this giveaway I would happily donate it to my school's library, sharing it with many deserving children and teachers at Fern Persons Elementary in Michigan.

Joanna said...

Wonderfully encouraging post and thanks so much for the ten step simile exercise - super helpful! OK, so truth be told, if I win I think I would keep the copy!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Fantastic interview, Janet and April, and I loved the video tucked in. What generous ideas for sharing poetry in schools - some of these I do in school visits and others have me thinking, "Of course!" If I won Janet's new book (and I'm at robyn at robynhoodblack dot com), I'd pore over it until our Fall SCBWI Southern Breeze conference, and then donate it to the Joan Broerman Book Basket (a winning attendee then donates the whole collection to a deserving library of his/her choice.) :0)

Tara said...

What an amazing post - so rich in ideas about writing and teaching! Thank you Janet and April. I want to try the simile exercise as soon as school begins.
I would keep a copy of Janet's book to encourage and inspire my students.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Wow--I knew quite a bit about Janet already, but this interview is full of surprising new looks at her many activities. Thanks, April! I can't wait to receive the book I won at a different blog (which I will enjoy thoroughly and then donate to my school's Media Center just in time for election season)!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Author Amok, Myra, Betsy, Joanna, Robyn,Tara,Heidi~~thanks for dropping by. And yes, Janet was an amazing interview! G'luck to those of you entering the contest!

Janet Wong said...

Thanks for your great comments, everyone! I hope some of you try the simile exercise with kids and let us know about your experience with it. I'm very proud to say that the poems that come out of this are first-rate. I think the key is the way the exercise is broken down into simple parts. One of my favorite recent similes (from Tom, a middle school student) is: "My mom is like the Cheez-Its in the back of the pantry; I might not always reach for her, but she'll be there for me, when the Pop Tarts are gone."

April Halprin Wayland said...

"...she'll be there for me, when the Pop Tarts are gone"...oh, wow. If I were Tom's mom, I'd feel I could die happy now...

Diane Mayr said...

I never would have thought of using drawing in a lesson on simile. It's an interesting approach!

If I were to win, I'd give the book to the public library where I work. That way, it could be shared with lots of kids, and, I could write about it for a Poetry Friday post on the library's blog.


laurasalas said...

I love the way you broke down the steps, Janet. I do similar exercises, but I learned some tweaks here that I'm going to make at my young authors conferences in May, mostly with helping young poets to be kind and to share ideas. Thanks!

If I won Janet's book, I would read it, share a poem on Poetry Friday, and then donate it to a school library. I'm at lauras_accounts (at) yahoo (dot) com.

Congrats on e-publishing To Rabbittown, April!

Geo Librarian said...

What a great topic to address with poetry. I would probably keep the book to use with my classes during election time.


hg195 at yahoo dot com

elsie said...

I love Janet Wong's book You Have to Write. I provide professional development for teachers so I would probably use the book as a prize during one of my sessions. I will try the simile exercise with teachers so they can go back to their class and try it with their kids.

Pam said...

If I am lucky enough to win this book by one of my very favorite poets, I will be selfishly unselfish. I collect books on the Constitution and about American governmnet. I take them to various 5th and 8th grade classes to help students learn and write about our Constitution and government. After perusing and discussing the books, I have them write both essays and poems. This book would be incredibly helpful in demonstrating how poetry often sends the best messages.

Margo Dill said...

Thanks for the similie activity. That was very generous to share with all of us! :)

If I win the book, I am only "half" selfish. :) I will keep it at home but share it with my stepson and daughter! :)

Thanks for the opportunity.
Margo (

Janet Wong said...

Diane: I think that drawing works well with this simile exercise because a simile is, by its nature, visual. And drawing also gives kids a chance to develop their ideas a bit before the pressure of the quick-write.

Laura: breaking the prewriting part of this exercise down into steps is the key to its magic, I think. I hope that you share your own poem-writing exercises--at least briefly describe a couple of your favorites--when you preside over the festivities at the Evanston Public Library in a couple of weeks!

Heidi and Pam and Laura: Please share my poem "We the People" with kids (and talk about absentee ballots). I hope you win a book so you'll have that poem handy, but if you don't, don't worry: I'm going to post that poem soon at my blog:

Elsie: Teachers often enjoy writing gift poems for their spouses or significant others or children--it's great to leave a workshop with a "free" birthday or anniversary gift.

Margo: Please do share my election poems with your stepson and daughter--I'd love for DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE to prompt discussions at school AND at home!

Thanks, everyone...and good luck! I think that April will be pulling names soon for the book giveaway!

Irene Latham said...

I am so happy to hear Janet is pursuing more e-book projects! I love the accessibility of these. And I also love incorporating a little art/drawing into poetry writing. This can really loosen kids up and engage the ones who are more visual/tactile learners.

If I win the book I will share it with our homeschool group. irene at irenelatham dot com

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and g'luck, Irene, Margo,Pam, Elsie, Laura E, Heidi G, Laura Salas, and Diane!

Annie Douglass Lima said...

I was privileged to meet Janet at a teachers' conference in Malaysia several years ago. In her workshop, she gave us the idea of creating a kindle anthology of our students' poetry. I've done this with my 5th grade class for the last three years, and the students love it! They're responsible for cover design, as well as coming up with the dedication and acknowledgments and choosing a charity to which the proceeds will be donated. A Boom in the Room, Sunshine Leaking, and Better than Cotton Candy have all been wonderful projects that have resulted in some very proud 5th graders (and parents)!