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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #34 (August 17, 2004), page 13 and
Minn and Jake
By Janet S. Wong
Pictures by Geneviève Côté
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
Hardcover, 146 pages, $16.00
By Josephine Bridges
"So Jake’s first thought on waking
with a lizard foot on his lips
was not what a waste of a lizard
Minn and Jake is a book about lizards and worms and giant squid and friendship, a very unlikely friendship between the very tall, pigtailed expert lizard catcher Minn, and Jake, the very short new kid in fifth grade who imagines people as animals "when he needs to feel better." Janet Wong has written a book that will make sourpusses laugh out loud and melt the hearts of meanies. Everyone on Earth, even grown-ups, should read it.
When his harried teacher tells Jake, who has just walked into her class for the first time, to choose a friend, "Quickly!" to help him reach a book on a high shelf, Jake makes a practical selection: Minn, "the tallest girl he has ever seen." Minn is having a bad day already. Sabina, who used to be Minn’s "true best friend" has recently been whispering and laughing about Minn with Lola. Now Minn’s stuck with Jake. Not just "all recess long," but after school, too. It’s not Minn’s fault that Jake’s family’s aquarium gets broken, but "Minn’s mother wants to make things right" and invites Jake to Minn’s house the next day.
"Minn is not going to waste her time
on that hopeless city boy Jake,
who is the slowest runner
and the laziest napper
and a good-for-nothing lizard-catcher, no."
But she is going to teach him to catch lizards "whether he wants to learn / or not." Jake, unfortunately, catches only lizard tails. His classmate Vik, also attending "the Lizard Lesson," announces:
six stubby lizards are watching you,
mad as boiled cucumbers."
When Vik starts talking about "lizard voodoo" Jake feels scared at first, but the next day he’s back on track, thinking about something "he is very good at: / making money." He’s going to sell the broken aquarium to Minn, and he’s every bit as persistent as she was about teaching him to catch lizards. After some spirited haggling, Minn agrees to buy the potential terrarium for $4.00, complete with postcards from Arizona and Hawaii, lava rock, and a toy dog named Sphinx with glow-in-the-dark eyes.
"Delivery’s free, Jake says.
We’ll bring it now,
and I’ll help you build it, OK?"
Finally, more than halfway through the narrative, Minn and Jake are squirming their way into friendship. But it’s going to be one of those friendships that ask a lot of both of them, and Janet Wong could write sequels about the rest of their lives, if she wanted to. This reviewer, writer, former children’s librarian, and seven-year-old at heart, who wears red high-top sneakers just like Minn’s, would read every one of them at least twice and make all her friends read them all too.
Janet Wong: Writer, role model, and a kid at heart
By Josephine Bridges
A lot of grown-ups seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, but not Janet Wong. While some incidents in Minn and Jake, her novel for young readers, come from the Seattle author’s imagination, many are the result of her vivid memories of her childhood. Janet Wong’s friendship with Jenny, to whom Minn and Jake is dedicated, began "just like the first scene in the book," said the author, who is still a kid at heart — "nine years old" to be exact.
Janet Wong based Jake on herself, but she made him a boy because she had heard that "a boy won’t read a book about two girls" and she "wanted the tough one to be a girl. Jenny was tough in the way girls were not supposed to be, like catching lizards." The author also "never did mention that Jake was Asian, because at that time, I wished I wasn’t Asian." Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.
Minn and Jake is written in what the author calls "lines of varying length" — as distinguished from poetry — because she wrote this book for English-as-a-Second-Language readers and reluctant readers and she wanted to give her audience "a thick book that they could finish in two hours."
The author of 14 published books — and a lot more as yet unpublished — Janet Wong began writing 13 years ago because she was afraid she was "turning into a mean person" in her work as a labor lawyer, which involved firing a lot of people. She decided to take a year off from her work and see if she could get a book published. When she had only rejections at the end of the year, her husband encouraged her, "If you love it, keep on doing it."
Janet Wong’s son Andrew, now 11, has also made a difference in her writing. When he read an early draft of Minn and Jake, his response to a scene in which an aquarium breaks was, "Mom, you killed the fish." Thanks to Andrew, the novel is considerably kinder to our finny friends than real life was.
In Portland on August 3 and 4 for presentations at four libraries, Janet Wong spent a lot of time with local children. Participants in the Hollywood Library’s Family Book Group not only had an opportunity to talk with the author about Minn and Jake, they also got a sneak preview of Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club, Janet Wong’s newest book, due out in September. The author says that she thinks the new book will appeal especially to Asian and Asian-American kids because the protagonist is "clearly Asian" and many of "the top kids in chess" are Asian, usually Chinese.
The lively discussion of Minn and Jake at the Hollywood Library centered largely around friendship and worms, which is fitting in that the author signs her books: "Be good to your friends and don’t eat any worms!" A reader named Evangel told the group, "My mom could really relate to being Minn," and J’Reyesha especially liked a scene in which the kids "fixed the broken aquarium and made the terrarium." When Janet Wong wanted to call attention to her height, she asked the boy sitting next to her to stand up with her. The two are the same height. "You’re ten?" she asked.
"No," said Chase, with a comedian’s perfect timing, "I’m nine."
Janet Wong, the first-generation daughter of a Korean mother and a Chinese father, sees many immigrant Asian parents pushing their children toward professions in which they can be financially successful. "I wish more Asian-American kids were encouraged to explore careers in the arts," she says. Janet Wong is not just a wonderful writer; she’s a role model.
The Hollywood Library Family Book Group will hold its next meeting on the first Monday in October at 6:30pm. For more information, call (503) 988-5391.