Author Spotlight: Jack Wong

Author/illustrator and NSCAD alumni Jack Wong has had quite a prolific year! With two picture books out in 2023 (When You Can Swim, Scholastic; and The Words We Share, Annick Press) and a third one coming in spring of 2024 (All That Grows, Groundwood Books), Jack has made a splash on the children’s literature scene to great acclaim. His accolades include receiving the 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Young People’s Literature for When You Can Swim, and a Blue Spruce Award nomination for The Words We Share. Jack has participated in competitive mentorships from Annick Press and Visual Arts Nova Scotia, and he spends his free time volunteering in the Reading with Newcomer Children program, an initiative of IBBY Canada. He will also be participating in the 2024 Canadian Children’s Book Week tour in New Brunswick. We were thrilled that he had time in his busy schedule to chat with us about his work.

You’ve certainly been busy this past year! Have you had any chance to catch your breath?

Not really! Releasing three books in the span of a year has been pretty intense. It wasn’t really planned that way: I had the opportunity to be interacting with three separate publishers, and their respective projects ended up landing at around the same time. It’s a great fortune, but I’m also living with the consequences! And publishing is of such a pace that you can do a course correction (e.g., have a better eye for scheduling future projects), but you’re kind of stuck with any decisions you already made for another three or four years.

We’ve heard you describe yourself as a “Jack-of-all-trades.” After a varied career in several other fields, what made you turn your attention to writing and illustrating children’s books? And how have your previous life experiences prepared you for the task?

I’ll skip over how I ventured into the arts from another career altogether (engineering) and pick up after graduating from NSCAD, when I spent several years struggling to find a means of artistic expression. I recall during that time several chance encounters with picture books that felt like the most moving and exciting aesthetic experiences I’d had in a long time — comparable to memorable moments at art galleries, for example — and deciding that that was the medium I wanted to work in, too. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that those chance encounters with children’s books came, in the first place, as a result of doing little projects with family and friends for their children.

One thing I’ve learned, not from working in any field in particular but just from having tried so many things in general, is how not to worry about imposter syndrome. We can focus so much on not fitting some imagined standard and lose sight of the fact that, by dint of our own grab bags of individual life experiences, we’ll all invariably approach the same task slightly differently. That slight difference is all that any one of us, as artists, ever has to offer.

It’s an impressive talent to be able to both write and illustrate a picture book. Do you start with the text first, or the illustrations? Or do you create them in tandem?

At the beginning, when a story or idea is still just all in my head, I find that I’m thinking in both words and pictures. For whatever reason, I tend to grab at the words first, aiming to pin down a manuscript before attempting the illustrations. I think it’s mostly because it takes a lot more effort to be drafting with a sketchbook than with a word processor!

For your debut picture book, When You Can Swim, you embarked on a promotional tour to schools in the United States, from North Carolina to California. What was it like to connect with your young audience? And what advice would you give to other kidlit writers preparing for school visits?

The first school visit I ever did, I was introduced by this archetypal children’s librarian: the one with the sonorous, expressive voice and infectious energy that just commanded the whole room — and for a brief moment I was petrified, thinking, “Right, that’s how you address a room full of kids — was I supposed to be like that?” Thankfully, I realized pretty quickly that other people play their roles so that you can play yours: by doing what they did, that librarian had perfectly prepared their group to be ready and attentive for me to do my thing.

My best advice is to be yourself and to be very well-prepared (which I hope isn’t paradoxical). I have a fairly small voice, but sometimes what actually results from that trait is a more intimate experience: at times, I can feel kids are on the edge of their seats just because of my hushed delivery. Being prepared allows me to play to my strengths: instead of just stumbling upon the moments where that effect is desirable, I try to have my script down to the exact words so I have opportunities for suspense or surprise built in.

When You Can Swim is such a beautiful love letter to the joy of swimming! What do you enjoy most about swimming, and where is your favourite place to swim in Nova Scotia?

Thank you! It may surprise some people that I actually find swimming kind of daunting and uncomfortable. Any time I swim outdoors, I need a big mental push to get in the water, even if I’m invariably glad afterwards that I took the plunge. If the book is successful in creating an encouraging yet empathetic tone towards swimming, it’s because I actually wrote it as much as a pep talk for myself as for the young reader.

Though many places represented in the book are further afield (as far as Meat Cove at the northern tip of Cape Breton), my go-to place to swim is probably Chocolate Lake, which is just up the road from me. We live in such a beautiful place to have lakes dotting the landscape — kids here don’t know how lucky they are!

The Words We Share will surely resonate with many newcomer families in which children often translate a new second language for their parents. Why was it important for you to write this story, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

The Words We Share draws from my own childhood experiences, immigrating with my family to Canada from Hong Kong when I was six years old, then translating for my parents when I picked up English much more quickly than they did. I’m certainly thrilled at the prospect that kids who have similar experiences will feel seen by and represented in this book, but I also think that the higher service I can do is to make other kids see and understand them through story. For that reason, my focus was always to create a story that was engaging and entertaining and universal — the reader who doesn’t have lived experience of immigrating or translating should still be able to feel it’s a story for them, too.

All That Grows is due to come out this spring, just in time for us all to get excited about digging into our gardens! Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect from this book, and what inspired you to write this story?

All That Grows follows a boy learning about the natural environment when he starts helping his green-thumbed older sister in her garden. The more he hears about different plants, however (not to mention their seemingly arbitrary classifications as flower, vegetable, or weed), the more he becomes aware of how complex the world is, and the less he feels he knows — especially in contrast with his sister, who somehow seems to know everything.

While this book has STEM appeal on its surface, I hope it succeeds in conveying larger things than the apparent subject matter. I wrote the story during the first months of the pandemic; for me, a child contending with a flood of received facts and judgements about the natural world serves as an analog for that period of time when what we learned from daily health briefings seemed to raise more questions than they answered, and reminded all of us that we really don’t know very much. How we resolve to move forward, in the face of uncertainty, is very much the underlying theme of the book.

You’ve held several book launches at Woozles and seem to have a great relationship with their staff. How important is it to build relationships with booksellers? Any advice for authors who might be hesitant when it comes to self-promotion?

I am extremely lucky to have the support of Woozles! While it’s been invaluable to have a relationship with my local children’s bookstore, I didn’t intentionally set out to build one. For a while, I was just that childless shopper who always felt sheepish browsing for hours at their old Birmingham Street location… It was such a relief that the staff (starting with long-time seller Nadine King) welcomed my presence just the same, and I was eager to meet their kindness. I think it helps when the professional relationships you need to forge are with those whom you admire anyway, and Woozles made that easy.

I’ve personally found so much enrichment in reframing “self-promotion” as acts of expressing gratitude. It’s an incredible thing for any person to give their time and consideration to a book. All I’m really doing is either thanking the reader for having read it, or thanking them in advance for reading it in the future!

What do you do when you have writer’s (or illustrator’s) block?

I can’t say I’ve figured that out! I try to subscribe to the old adages: write anyway, everyday, so that you’re present when the good stuff arrives, etc… More often than not, however, I find I’m not so much blocked — I know I have an idea in my head — but the prospect of actually grabbing hold of it is so daunting. Over time, I’ve learned to place more and more faith in incremental improvement, and try to adopt the mindset and the conditions for that to happen. When I have to revise a piece of writing, I’ll give myself just an hour or so each day over a period of time, and each session I’ll completely re-type the previous day’s draft, whether I have anything in mind to revise or not. Each time, a few choices are made in the process, however minor, and the ball is advanced an inch closer to the goalpost. Of course, it helps that most of the things I write are very short!

After your third book comes out this spring, are you going to take a break, or do you have any other projects on the go?

I took a bit of time off for the holidays, but other than that, it’s nose-to-the-grindstone. Luckily I’m very excited about the next things! I’m currently illustrating a picture book on acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (written by James Howe, author of Bunnicula and other classics), while working on early development for my next written-and-illustrated book with Scholastic.

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that participants in any given workshop have similar levels of creative writing and / or publication experience. This ensures that each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their career stage. The “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions used by WFNS.

  • New writers: those with less than two years’ creative writing experience and/or no short-form publications (e.g., short stories, personal essays, or poems in literary magazines, journals, anthologies, or chapbooks).
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