The Sealey Challenge: A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems

A white hand holds Janet S. Wong's A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED AND OTHER POEMS in front of a sea of green foliage and yellow flowers echoing the yellow of the cover and in the cover image of a woman in the sea in traditional Korean dress holding a tray of seaweed.
A Suitcase of Seaweed

Janet Wong is a children’s poet (and a former labor lawyer!), and A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems was written for middle graders and up—and it is a charming, joyous book, offering a deep exploration of race and identity mingled with almost unbridled joy and a whole lot of charm.

Wong’s father is Chinese American; her mother is Korean, and they met, as Wong tells readers in the introduction poem to “Korean Poems,” the first section of the book, when her father was stationed in Korea. A Suitcase of Seaweed is divided into thirds—”Korean Poems,” “Chinese Poems,” and “American Poems,” each with an illustration by the author herself. Since this is written for middle graders, each section is fairly short, and the book as a whole is wildly readable. I mean, it’s charming as hell. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s more emotional. But Wong always knows exactly what she’s doing, and this is a page-turner.

More than once, as I read through the poems of A Suitcase of Seaweed (which is a poem in “Korean Poems”! Wong’s halmoni brought an actual suitcase of seaweed!), I felt like I was hanging out with my childhood best friend, listening to his dad extol the virtues of the world’s hottest kimchi. I never made kimchi, but gosh, when I read “Burial,” I could imagine every step—and I could definitely imagine that kimchi at the end of the process, when “the kimchi is hot enough / to chase away all / trace of winter’s / chill.”

“Chinese Poems” focuses on family and found family: GongGong praises his dog’s guarding abilities (and feeds her chow mein), a family friend can’t deal with chopsticks. A voice that must be child-Wong’s wants to be an artist, while her grandfather wants her to be an accountant or a lawyer and make lots of money. Warmth and affection spills from every word and every white space, a record of love.

A Suitcase of Seaweed was written originally for middle graders and high schoolers, but you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it—and, while I might enjoy it a bit more because it reminds me so much of my childhood friends, it’s charming enough for anyone. But it was originally written for kids, and I think it would be a wonderful book to share together, as a family: a space to talk about identity and place, to look at similarities and differences, and to bask in the warmth and joy Wong creates on every page.

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