"What you study in school?" my grandfather asks.
Please tell us how you were introduced to poetry, how old you were and how you felt about it. How did this influence your decision to write poetry?
Like most people, I was introduced to poetry in elementary school. Starting about fourth grade, I decided that I didn’t like it. In fairness to poetry, it was poetry homework that I didn’t like. I’m terrible at memorizing poems and I hated picking poems apart to analyze them.
I later came to poetry by accident. I was 29 years old and had just quit my job as a lawyer. I wanted to write picture books, but I heard the poet Myra Cohn Livingston speak at a UCLA Extension day-long seminar on writing for children. I was impressed: I knew I could learn something from her! I didn’t want to learn poetry at the time, but I signed up for Myra’s beginning poetry class with the goal of sharpening my prose. After studying with Myra for nine weeks, I was hooked on poetry.
I read that you obtained your law degree from Yale and were a practicing attorney for several years, including at Universal Studios Hollywood. Then, you decided to write books, specifically poems and stories, for children. Briefly, what happened that made you want to pursue such a different field?
After paying off my student loans, I felt a tremendous freedom. I had never really wanted to be a lawyer in the first place, and with my loans paid, I was eager to reshape my life and wanted to work with kids. In that frame of mind, I found myself browsing in a children’s bookstore, looking for a gift for my young cousin. Next thing I knew, I had an armload of picture books for two-year-olds that I wanted to buy…for myself! The thought hit me: Somebody wrote these books. Why not me?
Does your heritage play a role in your work as a poet and ambassador of children's poetry?
My early books, especially "Good Luck Gold" and "A Suitcase of Seaweed" contain a number of poems that reflect my Asian heritage. I also have several picture books with Asian themes, such as "The Trip Back Home" (about my trip to Korea when I was five years old) and "This Next New Year" (about the lunar new year as a time for hope, and a fresh start). But my books with non-Asian characters and themes are important to the “ambassador” role, too. I visit dozens of schools each year, and I’m happy that non-Asian kids can identify with me as an Asian-AMERICAN, someone permitted to write about non-ethnic topics such as hide-and-seek, Dumpster diving, and yoga.
I love that in your testimonials about your work, you include statements from a fifth-grader named Geoff and other young students, along with those of a university English professor and other educators. Why do you this?
I’m embarrassed now because my Web site is a bit out-of-date, and I don’t know if all of those testimonials are still valid! “Fifth grader Geoff” is probably in high school by now! To answer your question, though, I included comments from a variety of individuals because I’m really proud of being able to connect with readers of all ages. Teachers and librarians often rush to tell me how a certain poem or story reminded them of their own childhood memory, while kids will say, “Your poem is about something that happened to ME last week!”
You say that poetry is a great tool for teaching reading and writing. Would you please elaborate a little on this? How can the average parent do this?
The main reason that poetry is a great tool for teaching reading and writing is simple: most poems are short. A parent might not feel like reading a whole picture book at bedtime, but might be willing to spend the thirty seconds it takes to read one poem! Similarly, a teacher can easily slip in a poem at the end of the day, as I describe in my essay “Five Minutes Before the Bell.” Also, if a short poem becomes a favorite, a child might easily “happen” to memorize it, and this will make it easy to be read.
On writing: the same reason, the short length of a typical children’s poem, makes it easy to write one. (I’m not saying that all kids will be able to write a GOOD poem, but they will be able to write something that can legitimately be considered a poem.) It’s hard for a beginning writer to write a novel, or a short story, or an essay, but a two-line poem is quite manageable.
Any other ideas for ways that busy parents can easily add poetry to their lives?
In my “Meet the Author” book, "Before It Wriggles Away," I talk about how I write bits and pieces of poems in unlikely places (such as in the car, while waiting for my son at school, or in the dentist’s office, if I happen to arrive early). And in "Minn and Jake's Almost Terrible Summer," Jake keeps a notebook of ideas for video games (because he wants to be a millionaire video game developer by the time he is 13 years old). Parents can encourage kids to write by keeping little notebooks in the car – one for each child, and also one for the driver. When you notice something odd while driving, mention it, jot it down as soon as you can, and try to write a little poem about it later. Parents can model this behavior and inspire their children to follow their example!
Illustration from Minn and Jake's Almost Terrible Summer
I scour thrift shops for books for my kids. I find it's an affordable way to build up my kids' home library and have been fortunate to find at least a dozen books of poetry for children. Other parents might not be so fortunate to find books this way. Besides public libraries, are there other resources you would recommend for parents who don't have a lot of money?
Buying used books is a great way to build a library, and it’s pretty easy to find good used books of poetry. Poetry books are particularly good purchases; you might not re-read a novel more than once, but you’re likely to re-read your favorite poems ten or twenty times. One neat “game”—an easy way to liven up a reading session and get your money’s worth from a book of poems—is to tell a child to pick a number at random, “1-32.” If they pick 31, you can then read the poem on page 31. The surprise element makes things fun.
Another good resource for finding cheap books (besides the library): become friends with your local independent bookseller. Small stores sometimes receive unbound review copies that they use to make decisions about which new books to order. After they’re finished with them, they might be willing to give them away (or might at least let you borrow them). This way, you can read brand-new books that your library doesn’t even have yet.
Another idea: if you are passionate about books, start a blog, or offer to write book reviews for the local newspaper or your child’s school. After you’ve done a few great reviews, send them to publishers—and they might start sending you review copies.
How old is your son and does he enjoy poetry as much as you do?
My son is sixteen. To say that he “likes poetry” might be stretching the truth, but I can honestly say that he likes writing a short poem for homework much more than writing a long essay!
Anything else you would like us to know about your work or incorporating poetry into children's lives?
Poems are a great way to capture your favorite family memories. Think of poems as “word-photographs.” How many times have you wished that you had a memory stored on camera? Well, while you can’t go back and re-create video of a lost moment, you can write a poem about it, and preserve and relive the memory that way.
My Son's Room
Eds Note: I had no idea of the literary delights that would come my way when I first contacted Janet. She replied to my interview request right away and I planned to post about her weeks ago. Then, the books started arriving at my home, thanks to Janet's requests to her publishers. They were all children's books, but I was smitten anyway with the words and beautiful illustrations, and read the books so I could tell you a little about them.
homegrown house: This book is aimed at four- to eight-year-olds, but I read it to my three-year-old son at bedtime one day. He listened intently, but what really caught his interest were the beautiful illustrations (shown in the first photo). Beautifully written as though the story was one large poem, homegrown house brought to life the concerns of a young girl who has just moved and is learning what makes a house a home. The book prompted a short discussion between my son and I about how much he likes his bedroom and what it took for us to get it that way.
Before It Wriggles Away: This book is part of a series of books to introduce children to writers and how they work. The reading level is for kids at elementary school level but my son liked looking at the many photos throughout the book detailing Janet's life. I enjoyed a closer look at the life of an author, especially the process of writing a poem from inspiration to scrawled writings on a scrap piece of paper to published version.
Minn and Jake's Almost Terrible Summer: Ah, the ups and downs of grade-school friendships. Janet does a wonderful job of capturing the tiny nuances of this stage in a child's life. Children are likely to find the conversational tone of the book quite appealing, as well as the humor in the story.
TOMORROW: Inspired by Janet's idea, my kids and I pack our own "poetry in a suitcase." Did it get my kids interested in poetry? I'll let you know!