Interview with Angela Ahn re: Peter Lee’s Notes From The Field

Hi Angela! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about PETER LEE. As you know, I loved KRISTA KIM-BAP. Both of these stories are so family-oriented, with grandparents playing central roles. Would you say that family is very important to you? Do/Did you have a close-knit relationship with your grandparents?

Actually, I only met one of my grandparents once. My mother’s parents both died shortly after the Korean War, my dad’s father died before we immigrated to Canada. My grandmother visited us in Vancouver once when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I just remember being scared to death of her. She was this imposing figure and I remember not being able to understand a thing she said to me. She died a few years after that trip. I have wondered why I have included close grandparent relationships in my stories when I’ve never had them. Maybe a sense of longing? 

Peter has asthma and I loved seeing the representation, but also how he has to learn to make his illness work with his dreams. I feel like asthma and allergies are underrepresented in middle grade literature. Why inspired you to create a character with asthma? 

My daughter was great friends with a girl who had severe allergies. Her friend moved away a few years ago, but they were still in Vancouver while I was writing the early stages of this book. Her mom and I would stand around and talk about, you know mom things, and then I found out how many other health issues practically everybody in their family had. Asthma was one of the issues. But the way she talked about it and the way she overcame it, to eventually swim varsity level at university, was pretty amazing and inspiring. 

I also watched the younger son in the family. This kid with high energy and the desire to run around. And then I watched him sit down on a bench to try to catch his breath and I wondered how frustrating it must be for him to have the desire to do something like running around playing tag, and then having his body say, “Nope, not right now.” I tried to work all of that into the story. 

I just loved L.B. She’s my favorite! Throughout the story, despite being a gifted eight-year-old, she just wants to be a kid. Her parents, though, push her to do more than that. Were you worried about feeding the Asian “Tiger Mom” stereotype? Why did you want to show that aspect of their parenting?

I haven’t really ever talked about this before, but my son is gifted. He was tested by the school and district in  grade 3 and then by grade 5 moved to a district gifted class. So I actually know a lot about what a parent thinks when you have a kid with high ability. I’m living it. I am that Tiger Mom. 

However, I think that the mom in the story, just like me, has figured out that having potential is one thing, and having your child be happy is quite another thing. I approached that character, somewhat tongue in cheek, because she is so much like me. I think there’s one really crucial line in her motivation as a character–when she’s talking about forcing your kids to do things they don’t want to do as being the “very definition of being a good parent.” I think, well, for me anyway, the idea of pushing your kids to succeed and achieve is actually a way of showing love. 

I’ve actually thought a lot about this and why the idea of being a Tiger Mom is viewed as such a negative stereotype and I wonder if it’s because we never think about why the Moms are doing what they are doing. It’s actually really complicated, but one of the things nobody ever really talks about is the love and devotion that goes into being the kind of parent who will give up literally everything (financially, emotionally) so that they’re children have a chance to be something or to do something that the parent feels is in the best interest of the child. 

So while I am worried about people not seeing that there’s more to her than they might think, people are going to read characters how they want to read them, no matter how hard I try or what my original intent was, so I really can’t stress about it anymore than I have. 

Hammy is dealing with health changes, and everyone is understandably worried. I liked the realistic way the story “resolves” things. More middle grade books are tackling dementia and Alzheimer’s. Was a personal connection to that health condition for you?

No, there was no personal connection here. Just a situation that many, many families face. 

Peter loves dinosaurs and paleontology! Do you? How much research did you have to do for this aspect of the book?

Not a lot really. My kids were both really into dinosaurs for a long time, so I picked up a lot over the years. I did have to refresh my memory a bit by going through reference material to make sure I got some details right though. 

I like the way you write about Korean culture. I like that your second-generation Korean characters sometimes don’t know how to make Korean food. As someone who doesn’t speak her native language as fluently as I do English, I feel like I can relate to your characters. Why do you feel the need to reflect these realities honestly?

I am just writing what I know. It’s my reality. I really am not that knowledgeable about Korean cultural things. Having lived in Canada for over 40 years in a city with a relatively small Korean population, we just didn’t grow up doing a lot of overtly Korean things. When my sisters and I were younger, my dad tried to teach us Korean in our basement (I have nightmares about the textbook he bought us) but what he didn’t know was we didn’t even know the Korean alphabet. We all balked. Then he sent us to Korean school one weekend and, to my horror, the teacher was a WHITE guy. We never went back. 

Even for Korean holidays, my parents just didn’t make a big deal about maintaining a lot of traditions. I honestly did not even know Koreans celebrated Lunar New Year until recently, because we never did! I guess parents thought it was more important for us to try and fit in with our Canadian setting than try to hold onto the language and culture we had moved away from. But now, as an adult, I want to learn Korean, so I’m teaching myself and it’s very slow going. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn as a kid! 

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Honestly, I’m quite boring. As I mentioned, I am learning Korean. 18 months ago, I couldn’t even read Hangul and now I can phonetically stumble my way through words. This past year I have finally discovered BTS, not only as a music group, but as entertainment. I have watched every single episode of their variety show Run BTS (more than once) with the goal of one day not needing the English subtitles to watch. They are absolutely hilarious. 

Which wonderful middle grade books have you read recently?

I really enjoyed The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, and A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat was my favorite book of 2020. 

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can share with us?

Yes, I am editing a book right now, but not ready to say too much about it yet. It’s different than what I’ve written before, so six rewrites later, I’m still working on it. I hope it’s finally coming together. 

Thank you so much for your time, Angela!

Thank you for asking me such great questions! 

  • Interview with Afoma Umesi and Angela Ahn

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 bed. 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, is out now. 

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