Eleven-year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. But in one summer, that all falls apart. Told in short, accessible journal entries and combining the humor of Timmy Failure with the poignant family dynamics of Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Peter Lee will win readers’ hearts.
Eleven year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. Okay, maybe two: to get his genius kid-sister, L.B., to leave him alone. But his summer falls apart when his real-life dinosaur expedition turns out to be a bust, and he watches his dreams go up in a cloud of asthma-inducing dust.
Even worse, his grandmother, Hammy, is sick, and no one will talk to Peter or L.B. about it. Perhaps his days as a scientist aren’t quite behind him yet. Armed with notebooks and pens, Peter puts his observation and experimental skills to the test to see what he can do for Hammy. If only he can get his sister to be quiet for once—he needs time to sketch out a plan.
What was your process of collaborating for Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field like? Tell us about how the story and the illustrations came together.
Angela: Like most authors, I didn’t get much input into the selection of the artist. I secretly hoped and prayed that Tundra would find an artist with Korean heritage because I just felt that there were some things about the book that an ethnically Korean illustrator would just “get.” I cheered loudly when my editor told me that they had contracted Julie. When I saw her work, I just knew it was a good fit. During the editing process, my editor, Lynne Missen, highlighted sections of the text where she felt an illustration would work. When Lynne sent me some preliminary drafts and the rough cover, and I got all these “feels.” Julie just got it. She understood the characters, and her style just worked so well with the tone of the story. The picture of the family on the last page makes me cry every single time I look at it.
Julie: When Tundra reached out with the manuscript, I was so excited to be given a story about a Korean kid written by a Korean author. I’m still fairly early in my career in books, so Peter Lee marks the first time I’ve gotten to illustrate the story of an explicitly Korean character. Angela’s manuscript had so much richness and depth, with lots of little details that I recognized and really appreciated, that I really wanted to do my best to have my illustrations have the same feeling. My number one priority throughout making the art was not just making sure the art looked good but also ensuring that the authenticity I felt from the text was retained through the illustrations.
Peter dreams of being a paleontologist, which is a fairly common career goal for kids. Why do you think dinosaurs are so compelling and why is Peter drawn to this field?
Angela: I would say a lot of younger kids find paleontology and learning about dinosaurs in general, quite interesting, but most lose their intense interest pretty quickly too. I’m using my kids for reference here—my kids went through an avid, but short-lived dinosaur phase for a few years. While they were learning, so was I. We watched so many documentaries on dinosaurs. We read tons of dinosaur books. And yes, we traveled to Drumheller so my kids could see the Royal Tyrrell Museum themselves. My husband and I actually had been there even before we had kids!
Of course, all this learning I had done over the years was excellent prep work for when it came time to write this story. When I was thinking about Peter as a character, I thought it might be interesting to show a boy at 11, turning 12, who had a passionate interest in dinosaurs and paleontology that wasn’t quashed by being a tween or by being seen as “uncool” to the other kids in his class. While I don’t seek them out, if they’re on, I will still watch dinosaur documentaries on TV. Still fascinating and still so much to learn!
Julie: I grew up within driving distance of New York City, which meant that when I was little, my brother and I were lucky enough to regularly visit the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. We naturally loved the dinosaurs, my brother especially. To this day, I can still vividly recall the awe and giddiness I’d feel looking up at the massive Allosaurus in the main rotunda, with its huge, swooping neck and whip-like tail. I still feel a little of that giddiness when I visit the museum today!
I think when you’re young your world can feel very contained. You have a degree of agency, but for most kids, there’s always a parent or other authority figure checking you or telling you what to do. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, present a world utterly unlike that of our day-to-day lives, in which the drama is literally and figuratively on another scale. They also really existed (unlike say, unicorns or dragons), which means you can look at fossils, read books, and just dive deep into an entire world of knowledge. For someone who is as creative and scientifically minded as Peter, it’s the perfect outlet and means of self-expression.
This book is about more than just dinosaur digs and science, it’s also about family and what you would do for the people you love. How did you bring this journey onto the page for Peter, both in the language and illustrations?
Angela: I had an early reader really help me to come to the conclusion that Peter can’t completely give up paleontology (which he did in an earlier draft). Thanks, Alice! I started off with the idea of doing a “fun” road trip book. But it wasn’t enough. I kept revising and adding layers, like Hammy’s dementia. So much of this book is a result of help from early readers. As a writer, I have the worst time detaching myself from my story and reading it critically. I’m just terrible at it. I really can’t see what it needs or where it falls flat. I’m hoping that with each book I get better and better and crafting stories. This was, when it was accepted for publication, only the second children’s book I had ever written from start to finish. I don’t have many “practice” novels like most writers do. Because I haven’t practiced enough, I needed help. I’m grateful that there are so many knowledgeable people who loved the essence of the story enough to help me smooth out the more technical side of storytelling.
Julie: The interior illustrations in this book are fairly simple in style, as most of them are to be understood as Peter’s personal doodles and drawings. I tried to be conscious of that fact as I drew, developing a style that felt true to that fact while allowing for humor and sensitivity. I did, however, enlist some help for a very important part of the book! In the story, Peter and his grandfather (or Haji, as Peter calls him) work together to make labels to help his grandmother, whose dementia is affecting her memory for where things are located. Peter writes the words in English and Haji writes the words in Korean. When illustrating the labels, I knew right away that my own very poor Korean handwriting would never convincingly look like that of an older man whose first language was Korean. So much like Peter relies on his grandfather to help him write the labels, I ended up enlisting my dad to write the Korean out for me! It was a small detail, but I felt it was necessary for an illustration that was so important narratively. The last thing I wanted was any Korean reader to be thrown off and unconvinced by what’s supposed to be a really special act of love.
Julie, what tools do you use in your illustrations? What are some of your preferred mediums? Have you worked with any mediums you’ve found challenging as an artist?
Since almost all the art is meant to be Peter’s own drawings, I thought it made sense to approach everything with primarily traditional media. The cover was done in colored pencil and art markers, with some editing afterward in Photoshop. For the interior illustrations, I drew almost everything in pencil or pen, with a few of the bigger drawings colored in Photoshop.
I tend to alternate between using primarily traditional or digital depending on the job and how much time I have. If I could I would do almost everything with traditional media, but it can be a little scary relying on it because it’s much more time consuming than working digitally. You don’t have the ease of hitting “undo” or easily moving things around, so you have to be very careful and deliberate. I also have yet to master a really efficient working process—I think I restarted the cover of Peter Lee at least three times until I was happy with it.
What were some of the careers you dreamed of having when you were a child?
Angela: I’ve been thinking very hard about this question. I honestly cannot remember wanting to “be” anything as a kid. I wasn’t passionate about a topic, unlike Peter Lee. I’ve always been a bit of a generalist. Not the best at anything, not the worst either. I guess I wasn’t much of a dreamer either! Not sure if that was because my daily life was pretty limited, but maybe that was part of it. I didn’t have access to extracurricular programs. We didn’t go on holidays. We didn’t eat out at restaurants. Dreaming seemed kind of impractical in my house. I know my parents “dreamed” about their kids going to university and getting good jobs and so for me, going to university and getting a professional degree wasn’t a dream, it was more of an expectation and a duty. They worked crappy, low-paying jobs so that we didn’t have to. When this is your reality as a young kid, having a whimsical “wish” for your future seemed kind of selfish, and maybe on some level, I knew that.
Julie: Weirdly enough, the first thing I ever wanted to be was a pediatrician. The second thing I wanted to be was an artist. I then spent most of my time growing up thinking being an artist wasn’t possible and entertaining a lot of other more “realistic” dream jobs until I came back to wanting to be an artist again in high school.
Angela, are there any authors who you have been inspired by, kidlit or otherwise?
I must admit, that I did not read a lot of kidlit until I had my own kids. I’m not as well-read as I should be. Now, I almost never read adult novels and I’m trying to make up for great kidlit that I’ve missed, but there are only so many hours in a day. In terms of being inspired, well, now that I’ve been through the whole process of getting books published, I know how much hard work goes into each and every book and I appreciate all authors and their devotion to tell the story contained in that book. However, two authors that I love to read (and I hope to one day read more of their works) are Kelly Barnhill and Neal Shusterman. When I read their books, I think to myself that I should just quit writing because I could never write as lyrically as Barnhill or weave a story as taughtly as Shusterman. They inspire me to write better.
Julie, looking at your portfolio, you create in such a wide variety of styles that are all evocative and emotional. How do you decide when you take on a project what style fits best?
Realistically, a lot of what determines the style I pick is how much time I have! But what I also absolutely take into consideration is the tone of the book, the visuals the text inspires, and what I’m interested in exploring artistically. I get easily bored and am inspired by a lot of different kinds of work, which means I’m always looking to try something new.
Julie, are there any artists and illustrators who have inspired your work?
While I’m very heavily influenced by western illustrators, at the moment I’m really interested in the work being done by Korean artists as well as the Japanese manga artists I have known and loved since I was little. Among Korean artists, I really love SseongRyul, Byun Young Geun, MyungAe Lee, Kyutae Lee, and Yi Rowoo. For Japanese artists, I currently really love the work of Aki Irie, Rumiko Takahashi, Hisashi Eguchi, Daisuke Igarashi, and Misaki Takamatsu.
What other books do you think Peter Lee is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or upcoming kidlit books?
Angela: I think Peter Lee and Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim are obviously talking to each other over Korean BBQ.
Some recent books that I’ve loved: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontorvat. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart brought me to tears. I don’t read a lot of YA, and I was slow to discover Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes books, but I read them serially this year. I read them while blow-drying my hair. That’s when you know a book has you hooked! When’s that fourth one coming out? I need it.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Angela: How much did you earn last year from writing?
Answer: (I swear I thought of this question before the #PublishingPaidMe conversation on Twitter!) My accountant still has my tax papers, but I believe the total amount was around $10,000 (Canadian dollars). That’s like $7,200 USD. That includes royalties from Krista Kim-Bap (two years later, I am still earning a very modest—I repeat, very modest—amount of money from the book), money from the Public Lending Rights program, (thank you Canada Council of the Arts), small presentations where I was paid a fee, and the largest portion of that was the one-third of the advance I earned from Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field. I cannot even count the number of hours (and years) invested in writing Peter Lee. On an hourly basis, I know I am earning well below minimum wage. I just wanted to be real here. I will get a bit more money when the book is published, but it’s more like “go on a vacation” kind of money, not “buy a new car” kind of money. Without the steady and reliable income made by my husband, I wouldn’t have been to do this.
Julie: I’m going to second Angela in talking about what I made last year from books. I signed to do one picture book for a $25,000 advance and received the signing payment of $12,500. With 15 percent from my agent taken out, it came to $10,625. I also signed to do another book with the same publisher for a $25,000 advance and received the signing payment for that also ($12,500 or $10,625 after taking out 15% for my agent). In total, I made $21,250 from books last year. While a large sum of money, in New York that’s unfortunately not a living wage, so I also supplemented my book income with part-time jobs and some freelance work. While I feel very fortunate for what I have made so far, I am distinctly aware that many of my fellow artists and writers (especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color) can’t say the same and deserve better. In general, I would really love to see more transparency in pay from my peers.
Angela Ahn was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to Canada before she could walk. Armed with a BA, BEd, and MLIS, she worked for several years as a teacher and a librarian, but lately has been working from home, taking care of her two children. When she can, she writes novels for kids. She’s lived most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., with brief stints working in Hong Kong and Toronto. Although she likes to blame her parents for her atrocious Korean language skills, she will admit that she was a reluctant learner. Angela’s proud to say that her children are bookworms, and that every member of her family has a stack of novels by their beds. She’s grateful to be able to write books where her children can see faces, just like theirs, on the front covers. Angela’s first book, Krista Kim-Bap, was published in 2018 and her second book, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, will be released 2021.
Julie Kwon is an illustrator and comics artist currently based out of New York City. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, her picture book debut as an illustrator, The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee, is to be published in 2021.