By Lynn Lawrence-Brown
Today we’re thrilled to welcome Janet Wong to the WNDB blog to discuss Good Luck Gold & More.
Good Luck Gold & More is a collection of 42 poems accompanied with thought-provoking reflections of each poem’s “story behind the story” or the “story after the story.” Janet Wong’s poetry and provocations move between celebrating her Chinese and Korean American heritage and the racism she experienced as a child. It is aimed primarily at upper elementary to middle school students but is truly a collection for all ages. Readers will not only benefit from reading the book personally or in group discussions, but all profits will go toward #StopAsianHate bystander training, a more than worthy cause in our troubled times.
Content note: includes discussion of racism and anti-Asian hate/violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 42 poems in Good Luck Gold & More were initially published in 1994. Why did you decide to write reflections and provocations and re-release the poems now?
With the surge in anti-Asian racism at the start of the pandemic, I felt a need to revive these poems. I knew that educators would be more likely to share them if students could read “the story behind the story.” I had given an “& MORE” treatment (with fifty new pages of text) to A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE and it was very well-received (a 2020 NCTE Poetry Notable), so I decided to do the same thing with Good Luck Gold & MORE.
Just as the intertwining of life itself, your poems and provocations range from whimsical, humorous, and tender to powerful, poignant, and stark. What was the inspiration behind pulling together these particular poems and provocations?
One thing that I considered initially was just pulling some of the poems for the new book—just the poems on race and racism. But each of us is made up of more than just our race, and much more than just the way racism impacts us.
The poem “Jade” describes a conversation you had with your grandfather about wearing jade to protect his “very crispy” bones. The provocation asks the reader to consider what “good luck” objects they cling to, inviting readers to see similarities in our differences. Tell us more about why you structured the book like you have.
I’m hoping to guide readers from hearing about something that one person or family does (my grandfather wearing a lucky jade ring), to understanding more about the idea generally (the way other people I know have worn jade), to having the reader explore the idea on a personal level (their own lucky charms). I think this is how we develop compassion and empathy: moving back and forth between a group of people and our individual selves.
You wrote many of these poems about what you experienced as a child growing up Asian American in the 60s and 70s. Many of the poems center around othering, microaggressions, and the racism you and your family faced. With the recent spate of violence against Asian Americans, do you think racism is worse today or when you were a child?
After President Obama was elected, it was easy to focus on hope and believe that we were leaving racism behind. But things are definitely worse now in terms of violence against Asian Americans. At the onset of the pandemic, I felt afraid to walk around. I felt very afraid for my elderly father when we learned that horrific public attacks were happening this past summer.
Is this a reason you’ve chosen to donate all profits of the book to #StopAsianHate for bystander training?
I feel uplifted by the Zoom-based bystander training that Hollaback! is doing. When we’re talking about bullying and taunting, the fact is that there often are witnesses standing around doing nothing—and that is almost just as hurtful and harmful as the violence itself. I think we’ve all found ourselves doing nothing when we see or hear a microaggression. And while we could easily shrug it off—“well, it was just a small thing”—that automatic “do nothing” response becomes the foundation for a pattern of inaction. Later, when it’s crucial to step up, we can’t. Hollaback!’s simple and powerful “5D” approach makes it almost impossible to stand there doing nothing. You know what to do, and you know you have to do it.
The poem “Waiting at the Railroad Cafe” is particularly powerful because it links our past with the present and suggests that the attitudes that left the Chinese railway workers out of history are the same attitudes fueling racism today. Tell us more about why these stories need to be told?
Asian Americans deal with two main types of racism: violent verbal and physical attacks are at one end of the spectrum of racism and being treated as if we are invisible is at the other end. “Waiting at the Railroad Cafe” addresses both the invisibility issue (waitresses passing us by, refusing to seat us or serve us) and the violence (drunks shouting at us). It’s been happening ever since Chinese workers came here to work during the gold rush and the building of the railroads. Reading this poem hopefully will help kids understand that anti-Asian racism has been around for 150 years.
Your poem “All Mixed Up” centers around the word “multiculturalism” but spotlights microaggressions. Do you think there is a danger in using such catchphrases like “multiculturalism”?
One problem with “multicultural” and “diverse” initiatives is that they usually put European people as the default—to the point of erasing their Irish, French, Scandinavian, Slavic, Italian, and other cultures. Two books for adults—Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen—really got me to think more broadly about race, class, and caste; I think about the themes in these two books almost on a weekly basis.
You specialize in writing poetry but have also written stories ranging from picture books to longer fictional stories. Which do you prefer writing?
Poetry! I’m mainly writing poems now for two reasons. First, editors that I worked with at Simon & Schuster, FSG, and Harcourt on my non-poetry books have all retired or passed away. And second, I’ve discovered how fun it is to work with my friend Sylvia Vardell. Pomelo Books, the publisher of our anthologies, is run by just the two of us. Sylvia’s Poetry for Children blog is considered the definitive resource for children’s poetry. If Sylvia were an expert on fantasy novels, then maybe I’d be writing those instead!
What advice would you like to give to today’s youth about writing?
Just do it. (Whoever came up with that Nike ad campaign was brilliant.)
What books do you think are must-reads?
I would look for books at the Diverse Verse blog; there are tons of great recommendations there, including many verse novels. But if you start with an anthology, you can introduce young readers to a whole bunch of poets at once. Some good choices are No Voice Too Small or I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage. And incorporate brain breaks with the movement-themed anthology of 100 poems that Sylvia Vardell and I created, HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving, featuring poems by diverse poets such as David Bowles, Margarita Engle, Kevin Noble Maillard, Lesléa Newman, Linda Sue Park, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Carole Boston Weatherford, and many more.
Janet Wong is the author of more than 35 books for children and teens—and is the winner of the 2021 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, one of the highest honors an American children’s poet can receive. A graduate of Yale Law School, her transition from lawyer to poet has been the subject of The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN’s Paula Zahn Show, and Radical Sabbatical. Janet has served as chair of several national committees, including the ILA Notable Books for a Global Society committee. Her most recent anthology, co-edited with Sylvia Vardell, is Things We Do (an alphabet book); her most recent collection of poetry and prose is Good Luck Gold & MORE. You can learn about her work at janetwong.com and pomelobooks.com.
Lynn Lawrence-Brown is a co-teacher librarian at Hong Kong Academy and a freelance writer. Her mission is to promote diverse books to inspire students to become lifelong readers, allowing them to empathize with others and better understand themselves. She is in the MLIS and K-12 Teacher-Librarian Licensure programs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is a member of ALESS HK, ALA, and APALA where she is a volunteer book reviewer. Previously, Lynn enjoyed a 12-year career in public relations, consulting for corporations throughout Asia. A Taiwanese American, Lynn graduated from Colby College with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, which led her to study and live in Greater China for 30+ years. She splits her time between Hong Kong and Maine where she grew up.