Friday, April 20, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Janet Wong

We're nearing the end of this Diversity series that I have been running. This will be the last diversity post here on my blog. On Monday, I'll be sending you over to the Enchanted Inkpot for a very special interview with Tu Books Editorial Director Stacy Whitman and her author Kimberly Pauley and a special giveaway.

Today, I want to welcome Janet Wong, an award winning children's book author and poet, to the blog with another perspective on diversity. I hope you enjoy it.

Cover Girl
by Janet Wong

In 1990, Glenn and I went to the County Clerk’s Office in Naples, Florida to get our marriage license. We filled out the form, waited for the license to be typed, and left the office. Waiting at the elevator, I noticed that the license read: Groom-Race-Caucasian; Bride-Race-Caucasian. I am half-Chinese and half-Korean. We marched back in and told the (Caucasian) clerk that she’d made a mistake. “You can just white-out the ‘Cauc’ part,” I said, smiling and pointing to her error. “Then it will say ‘asian’—which is what I am.” She looked at me quizzically and said, “But honey—you’re one of the white races!”

One thing that I hope my books do is to remind non-white kids that they don’t need the “favor” of being made white. And to show the clerk’s grandchildren that the world is not just black versus white, as they might have been taught at home. To encourage kids to become comfortable with who we—and others—are, describing ourselves neutrally by our race and ethnicity the way someone might use “tall” or “red-haired” or “in the blue shirt” but also understanding that racial terms might not be the best description. In a crowd of non-Asian women, I could be described most easily as the Asian one; but in a crowd of thin women, you should call me the chubby one. And in a crowd of chubby Asian females, I am the short one with the MBT shoes, the one with no makeup, the children’s poet dressed all in black.

But it is not enough to simply slap an Asian face on a cover of a book with an Asian theme. The face on the cover needs to match the book; not every Asian cover girl should look like an elegant, long-haired starlet. Take a look at the cover of my first book, Good Luck Gold, published in 1994 by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon and Schuster):

This is a fine painting. I could not paint such a painting. With a title poem about good luck gold jewelry, this image makes sense. But Good Luck Gold also contains several strong poems about identity, racism, death, and other difficult subjects. Given this strong subject matter, I would’ve preferred a cover that wasn’t as feminine, lavender-pink, and “pretty.” I would’ve preferred a cover girl who didn’t look like a stereotypical “soft Asian girl.” I asked my editor Margaret McElderry to change the cover for the 2nd printing; she said that we could consider it sometime later. Later, around the 8th printing of the book, I asked again. Her reply was that the book had done quite well, so the cover must not have caused any damage.

The opportunity to change the cover for Good Luck Gold finally came when the book went out of print and the rights reverted to me. Now I could be the art director—and make the perfect cover. I found a photo that I liked at and purchased it. I created two slightly different covers—a paperback version with the words of the title arranged in “chop formation” and an e-book with the title displayed on a line. Here is the paperback cover:

I think this new cover fits the content of my poetry collection much better than the original cover for Good Luck Gold. I like the way this child projects toughness (with her no-nonsense jacket and haircut), yet also seems friendly and reflective. I am quite proud of this cover—but there is a small thing that troubles me. After the paperback edition was published, I noticed that there is something odd about the cover girl’s teeth. Either her teeth were altered in some way in the original photo, Photoshopped with a sticky veneer of what appears to be pink bubble gum, or she happens to have a very gummy smile, the kind where the top lip is drawn extremely high. When I look at the cover now, I like to imagine that the latter is true—and that, despite an “imperfect” smile, this girl is smiling proudly, showing her gums in all their pink glory. Because, if book covers are to encourage kids to become comfortable with who we are, we need to celebrate all kinds of cover girls, girls of all ethnicities, shapes and sizes, girls with glasses, big noses, bushy eyebrows, gummy smiles, and crooked teeth. For all our readers, let’s wish for cover girls that say: Hey, you—smile!

Janet Wong ( is the award-winning author of a wide variety of books for children and teens, including Good Luck Gold, A Suitcase of Seaweed, Me and Rolly Maloo, Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club, and Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year.


Charles Gramlich said...

"one of the white races!" What an incredibly bizarre comment. Socially defined races is one of those things I wish would go away, but I know I'm not going to get that wish for a long long time.

Danette Vigilante said...

It was a good thing I wasn't drinking anything when I read what that wacko clerk said!

I love the little girl on the new cover. Adorable!

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting piece shared with honesty and hope for us all!

Anonymous said...

What a great post to close out an insightful series! I remember touring the South with the gospel choir in college and being one of three Asians in the room (all of whom were part of the same gospel choir...).

G.M. said...

It's nice to meet you here, Janet. In my recent blog about famous (and so famous) American Chinese authors I posted about you (you can click on my name to read) .. after visiting your website and enjoying watching you on YouTube. It's cool how you quickly noticed that "White" people are actually Asian with an extra Cauc ..:). I don't get your publisher. The second book cover that you picked is by far better than the first one. It's lively, the girl is pretty and smiling inviting people to buy the book and the arrangement of the letters is more vibrant. Best wishes with your next peoms and books, and for your other half you might wish to listen on YouTube to my favourite song from Korea "Hyorin-Because of You."

Janet Wong said...

Thanks, everyone, for your terrific comments!

Giora: I visited your blog and was very happy to see my name there along with my good friends Grace Lin and Justina Chen!!

Ani Louise said...

I hope things have changed by now at the County Clerk's Office! Love the new cover you created for your book!

Janet Wong said...

We need to send an undercover couple to Naples to find out!

playbazaar said...

Satta king
this is very brilliant blog posting!!!!!

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