Festival Five with NSK Juror Janet Wong

October 5, 2020


A photograph of author Janet Wong juxtaposed with the logo for the 50th Anniversary Neustadt Lit Fest logo

Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who switched careers to become a children’s author. Her dramatic career change has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN’s Paula Zahn Show, and Radical Sabbatical. She is the author of more than thirty books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including identity (A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE), writing and revision (You Have to Write), diversity and community (Apple Pie 4th of July), peer pressure (Me and Rolly Maloo), chess (Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club), and yoga (Twist: Yoga Poems). A frequent featured speaker at literacy conferences, Wong has served as a member of several national committees, including the NCTE Poetry Committee and the ILA Notable Books for a Global Society committee. Together with Sylvia Vardell, she is the co-creator of The Poetry Friday Anthology series published by Pomelo Books.

In addition to serving as a juror for the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, Wong will participate in the Readings and Book Giveaways by the 2021 NSK Prize Jury event.

Q: What was your first favorite book, the book that made you a reader?

A: I think it might’ve been The Story of Bubbles the Whale—a picture book about the orca that was at Marineland, an aquatic theme park about fifteen miles from my house when I was a child. I went to Marineland when I was three or four years old, and it made a huge impression on me. I tracked down a copy of this book about ten years ago after an interviewer asked me a question similar to this—and I wish I hadn’t. Some things are better left in our memory banks!

Q: What is the best book-receiving experience you’ve had?

A: The best book I ever received might be a homemade Pokemon-themed book that my son made when he was six years old. I remember such pride—on both our parts, him over having made it, and me over having such a clever kid. I’m embarrassed to say that I might not even have it any longer, but I think it’s probably just buried under twenty-one years of the kind of “kid stuff” that mothers accumulate and store in closets.

Q: From among your (likely) tall to-be-read stack, which book or two are you absolutely determined to read soon and why?

A: Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. We must try harder as a nation to understand issues of race and class—and issues beyond race and class. It starts with each one of us, as individuals, learning more and doing more to examine our own biases and change our behaviors.

Q: What is the book you most often gift children and why?

A: The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry, an anthology of two hundred poems compiled by J. Patrick Lewis. Disclosure: I have a handful of poems in this book. But that’s not why I give it. It’s because the photographs are so stunning and the poems help us look even more deeply at them.

Q: You left practicing law to become a children’s author. Do any legal themes sneak into your writing?

A: Legal “themes” don’t sneak into my writing, but legal thinking does. One thing that lawyers understand is that there are usually at least two ways of looking at anything—and you need to be able to approach an issue from different perspectives. This helps enormously when I’m revising something I’ve written. We all know how it feels to read a draft and think it’s perfect. The lawyer in me urges me always to revise, with the goal of making it different. Not better, but different, to give myself a choice.