As a part of the Organization of Chinese Americans National APA Heritage Month Children’s Book Tour, the Organization of Chinese Americans will do weekly interviews with participating authors on their experience as an APA children’s book author. This week, we are featuring Janet S. Wong, author of Me and Rolly Maloo (Charles Bridge Publishers $11.95). The book is aimed at young readers ages 8 to 11.
Janet Wong (www.janetwong.com) is the author of 21 books for children and teens, including Apple Pie 4th of July, The Trip Back Home, and Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer. A graduate of Yale Law School, Ms. Wong became a children’s author because she “couldn’t think of anything more important than working with kids.” While half of her books are inspired by her Chinese and Korean heritage, the other half are “just about growing up.” Ms. Wong has performed her work at the White House, in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, and at many schools and libraries in between. She also has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her latest book is Me and Rolly Maloo.
OCA: Who or what inspired you to write your first book?
Janet Wong: There were many “first books”; I received over two dozen rejection letters for about a dozen picture book stories! The problem was that I was writing about totally made-up stuff, things that had no connection with my real life or heritage. I found success when I wrote about myself and my family in Good Luck Gold, A Suitcase of Seaweed, The Trip Back Home, Apple Pie 4th of July, and This Next New Year. My grandfather, my GongGong, was a real source of inspiration. My favorite poem, “GongGong and Susie” (in A Suitcase of Seaweed) features his story of how he survived through the Depression by hunting for skunks, snakes, and owls. He was quite a tough and resourceful man, as most immigrants of that time (the 1920s) were.
OCA: How did you come up with the plot and title for the book you’re reading for the book tour?
JW: I’m not sure how I came up with the idea and title for Me and Rolly Maloo, but once the idea took hold, I knew that it would be my most important book. Why do we let ourselves be defined by the people around us rather than defining ourselves? This is why the name of the main character, Jenna Lee, isn’t even in the title. She is defined in this book by her longing to be friends with Rolly Maloo, the most popular girl in school.
OCA: Are the characters/plot based on your own experiences? If so, how much?
JW: Me and Rolly Maloo is about a number of things: feeling like an outsider, finding your true place in a community, peer pressure, the way gossip spreads, and having to make hard ethical decisions. The particularly hard ethical decision involves cheating on a math test. Have I ever cheated on a math test? Sadly, yes–but I’ll spare you the gory details here. Invite me to your local school or library, and I’ll tell all! Nearly everyone has cheated, or has been tempted to, or has been asked to cheat. I hope that Me and Rolly Maloo inspires family and classroom discussions. Our children need to talk about what to do when someone puts you in a difficult spot.
OCA: Have you always wanted to be a children’s book author?
JW: I haven’t always been a children’s author. Twenty years ago I was a lawyer!
OCA: What were your favorite children’s books growing up?
JW: The Story of Bubbles the Whale was a favorite. It tells the story of a pilot whale who is captured in the ocean and brought to Marineland. When I was a child, I loved going to zoos, aquariums, and amusement parks. We lived in Los Angeles, so I went to Marineland several times. Last month I read that book again (for the first time in forty years), and I was quite surprised. A lot has changed in our thinking about whales, and I found the story to be very sad. But children need to hear sad books, complicated books: books create wonderful opportunities to talk about difficult issues.
OCA: Do you have a favorite APA author?
JW: I have many favorite APA authors–choosing just one would be very hard. Two of my favorite authors (and people) are Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) and Justina Chen (Girl Overboard). They are brilliant writers, excellent speakers, and people who do a lot for their communities.
OCA: Can you share any projects in the works with us?
JW: I’m working on a third Minn and Jake book, one where Jake’s parents are trying to decide whether to treat him with Human Growth Hormone because of his height. This raises important issues of body image and the bias against short people. I’m only 4’11”–so this is a subject that really comes from the heart. I’m also working on a second book in the Rolly Maloo series, one called Me and Jenna Lee. This one is told from the point-of-view of Shorn L. Loop, Jenna’s no-nonsense African-American friend.
OCA: What do you like to do in your free time outside of writing?
JW: When I am not writing, my favorite thing is to speak at schools. I make half my income this way but, more important, it also gives me a chance to connect with my readers. I truly love my work. Apart from work, my favorite activity is being a fencing mom. My son is a saber fencer. He groans about the volunteering that I do (organizing tournaments and helping to run our division) because he finds it embarrassing to have me around his fencing club all the time. I suppose that is natural for a 17-year-old! But I’m happy that I’ve found a way to be an active participant in my son’s life. He will be going to college in another year, though, so I’ll be able to devote more time to another hobby, gardening. It’s about shaping a community on a smaller scale – getting the bugs and deer to work with me and not gobble up all my plants!