Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Genre #3: Poetry - BEHIND THE WHEEL

Bibliographic Data:

Wong, Janet S. 1999. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. ISBN 0689825315

Plot Summary:

In this collection of poems, Janet Wong presents thirty-five poems that relate in some way to driving and the events that can occur when driving. From crashes to insurance coverage to being stopped by the police, Wong presents poems on driving with realism and humor. She uses ordinary language to approach the topic of driving, making it clear how this topic relates to life in general. One such example is “You Have Got To”:

I don’t go to church.
I can’t say for sure
I believe in much.
But you’ve got to believe,
when you drive like crazy,
spin in the rain
in front of a bus and
straighten out
no harm done.

you’ve got to believe

there’s a place for you
in this amazing world –

and you owe it to yourself,
you have got to
keep on going until
you arrive.

Critical Analysis:

This poetry collection as a whole provides an engaging look at the genre through a popular activity and a major milestone for teenagers – driving. Wong’s look at life through the lens of driving makes this book an appealing choice for readers (and drivers!) of all ages.

The rhythm of the poetry in this collection varies, as Wong incorporates poems of different lengths and different meters to create a well-balanced selection. In some poems, lines are clearly set apart from others, whereas in other poems, there are few line breaks. This helps draw the reader’s attention to the topic of driving, while also drawing attention to the life events or circumstances that Wong is paralleling in the poetry itself.

While there is little rhyme scheme employed consistently throughout the collection of poetry, Wong definitely embraces sound in creative ways. For example, one poem includes possible license plates, creating words and sounds out of only a few letter combinations. Additionally, her use of alliteration (“crazy cars” and “buckle his back”) establishes a good poetic rhythm through the sounds of the words used.

Since the focus of this poetry collection is on driving, there are numerous examples of language that relates to drivers and driving situations, but that is used in unique ways. For example, ’11 o’clock and 1 o’clock’ call to mind the placement of hands on a steering wheel, not the time of day. Wong’s use of ordinary language to associate with the topic of her poems creates an engaging read through the poetry.

These poems are full of great imagery and emotion, as readers imagine their own experiences driving and learning the rules of the road. With images such as “white knuckles clutch the wheel” and “You can stuff the glove compartment the way your mother stuffs you on Thanksgiving…,” the reader is able to connect with this powerful language and create their own connections with Wong’s poetry.

Review excerpts:

VOYA – “After reading this slim volume, teens will not look at driving or poetry in the same way again…”

Horn Book – “…reflective…conversational and unfussy…”

Booklist – “readers of all ages will be moved by the intersection of poignancy and humor as she describes the thrilling freedom of the car…”

Personal Reaction:

This collection of poetry was unique and engaging for me as I enjoyed exploring the ways in which Wong connected such a common experience – driving – to other events in life. The coverage of the poems was quite expansive, too, allowing me to venture down the many situations that can occur when driving.


· Brainstorm a list of memories that you associate with driving or with your first car; write a poem about one of these memories.

· Choose one of the poems and create a collage that reflects the images presented in it.

· Re-read all of the poems that involve family members (i.e. “Daddy and Shin,” “Grandmother’s Car”). Write a response or a poem that is similar in form to honor someone in your family.

· Listen to the audio version of some of the poems, including “Daddy and Shin” and “When a Cop Stops You” at

Related Readings

Other Poetry Collections by Janet Wong
Twist: Yoga Poems

A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems

The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children

Good Luck Gold and Other Poems

Knock on Wood: Poems about Superstitions

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