Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Janet Wong on A Book That Matters
by Janet Wong
I could write a book every month; and now, in this ebook era, I could actually publish a book each month. But, of course, the trick is to write a book that matters—one that will entertain, one that readers will connect with, and I hope, one that will change someone’s life in some small way. As my mentor Myra Cohn Livingston once said, “‘the worst thing is to write a book that makes a reader say, ‘So what?’”
When I saw photos of the emaciated and diseased tigers kept in small cages in China’s tiger parks, I knew that this was something worth writing about. Tiger carcasses are in high demand there for use in a traditional wine purported to have medicinal qualities, so a dead tiger is much more valuable than a live one. But, since it’s illegal to kill the animals, they are simply hastened to their deaths through starvation and neglect.
I didn’t want to write a book that would give children nightmares or one that adults would consider didactic, or off-putting, in its subject and approach. My aim was to reach as many children as possible, and simply to make them aware of this problem. So I decided to embed my discussion of the plight of these creatures in the notes of Once Upon a Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals (OnceUponATiger.com 2011), my ebook collection of pourquoi poems about the tiger and eight other animals.
My hope is to inspire children to wonder about these creatures with the lighthearted and whimsical creation verses found in the book. If, because of their wondering, they want to learn more about the animals (in the book’s back matter and beyond), that would be perfect. But, if it’s just pleasure they derive from the poems, that would be fine, too. With these goals in mind, I brainstormed some questions, silly and serious, about the tiger:
- What does the word “tiger” mean?
- How many stripes does the animal have?
- Are the stripes found only on the fur?
- If “you are what you eat,” did the first tiger eat too many zebras?
After a few minutes of online research (thank you, Wikipedia!), I learned:
- “The word “tiger” is taken from the Greek “tigris,” which is possibly derived from a Persian source meaning “arrow,” a reference to the animal’s speed and also the name origin of the Tigris River.
- Most tigers have more than 100 stripes.
- The pattern of stripes found on tiger’s fur is also found on the tiger’s hide. If a tiger were to be shaved, its distinctive camouflage pattern would be preserved.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any citations or references related to mythological tigers eating zebras. But that image refused to leave me, so I decided to build my poem around it. Armed with these musings and tidbits of information, I came up with this draft:
TIGER [Draft #1]
Back when Tiger was just another
Lion, the Wind warned:
What you eat, you will be.
Eat wisely: do not be a Glutton.
Gluttons are sent to starve in the snow.
Tiger was the strongest and fastest
of all lions, fast as an arrow, fast as fire,
and hungry as a hundred lions.
When dinnertime came, Tiger caught
a hundred zebras and ate them all.
When Tiger woke up the next morning,
she found herself at the top of the earth,
white with snow, and covered in stripes.
One stripe for each eaten zebra. She scratched
away her fur, but her skin was striped, too.
What you eat, you will be.
Tiger now hunts the meek red deer,
hoping to tame her temper,
trying to become more gentle,
working to change herself.
I sent this draft to my friend and respected poetry blogger Elaine Magliaro, for her opinion and feedback. She felt the poem might lead children to believe that tigers and zebras had the same habitat. I wrote several more drafts to address Elaine’s concern. I also changed the meek ending (which was written less about tigers and more about myself, born in the Year of the Tiger—and really belongs in a different poem).
Here is the final draft:
Once upon a Time…
there was a Lion
who was strong as fire,
and very, very hungry.
Why share one zebra
when I can eat a hundred?
While the others slept,
she devoured a whole herd,
stripe by stripe.
The next morning
she was covered in stripes.
She scratched off her fur.
Her skin was marked, too.
The other lions knew
where the zebras had gone.
They stripped her name away.
She was cut off from the pride.
An arrow, orange with fire,
burned north beyond the sky.
That is where they sent her,
the zebra-eater of lion legend—
way back when,
once upon a Tiger.
When setting up the website for our ebook, I decided to invite children to send us their poems about endangered animals (and to help us choose the creatures that will benefit from donations of royalties). In April of this year, our website received submissions from children in Singapore, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Washington, Texas, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and other locations. Please visit our site www.OnceUponATiger.com to read some of their work—and encourage your students to send us their poems, too!
When the book’s illustrator, Sladjana Vasic, and I visited the fourth-grade classroom of teacher Linda Biondi at Pond Road Middle School in Robbinsville, NJ, we encouraged kids to write about endangered animals for us and to write about them, and other subjects, for their own ebooks.
We suggested causes ranging from earthquake relief to a visiting author fund to a classroom library. Kids perked up when we explained that it costs nothing to create and place an ebook in the Kindle or Nook store. They were especially excited to learn that royalties of up to 70 percent can be earned per book.
I believe so strongly in the future of ebooks and the possibilities of ebook fundraisers in schools that my friends tease me about my ebook eVangelism. But consider: wouldn’t it be more exciting and meaningful for your students to sell their own cause-inspired writing rather than wrapping paper, magazines, or the world’s not-so-finest chocolate? With an ebook fundraiser, no trees are destroyed and no fuel wasted, and your students will have had an interesting real-world writing experience.
And if the book really does matter—even if only to you, to them, and to their parents—no one can possibly say, “So what?”
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Janet Wong.
Hear Janet Wong speak about her name, including her Chinese name and its meaning.