Checking in (plus Reading Guide & Activity)

Hello, and how are you these days?

(If you want to skip down to the Reading Guide & Activity, scroll past the photos of my backyard below.)

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy, and also staying sane. I know it’s really hard to remain cool and calm when the news is full of awful updates and grocery stores contain empty shelves. Take solace in knowing that we’re enduring these troubling times together, and it’s normal to feel anxious, unsettled and distracted.

Some things that have helped me (please do share your tips, too):

  • A short, daily to-do list. I’ve been finding it hard to focus, so it helps to have very manageable task list each day.
  • Going with my pup Sherwin for a morning walk in the neighborhood when most are still indoors.
  • What I call “small moments of great joy” (I believe the Danish word is “hygge”)– a homemade Italian coffee with a square of French chocolate, picking lemons in the sunny yard, smelling the roses that are starting to bloom. I deliberately incorporate moments of hygge throughout the day, to have something to look forward to every few hours or so.
  • Calling my parents at a regular time daily to make sure they’re staying healthy and safe. I think it comforts them to know we’ll connect at the same time each day.
  • Zoom chatting with friends. A group of us had a Zoom chat the other night, and at first I was reluctant because I’ve had so many conference calls while working from home. The last thing I wanted was another group call. However, the Zoom chat really cheered me up. We commiserated, laughed, updated each other on “normal life” things, like job/family/relationships.
  • Helping others in little ways — leaving a bag of lemons from our backyard tree on a friend’s porch, picking up groceries for people, mailing books and cards and little gifts, sending encouraging emails and texts.
  • And always, I find solace in good books. I’m currently reading Linda Sue Park’s new middle grade novel, Prairie Lotus. Are you reading anything good lately? I’d love to know.

Social distancing is actually not that difficult for a writer because solitude is a requirement for writing. Also, because I’m an introvert who is deeply in love with her home life, social distancing is my default mode (though I could definitely do without the reason for all of this —ugh, go away already Covid-19!). There’s a big difference between wanting to stay at home by choice and having to stay at home due to global health concerns. I miss not being able to hang out with family/friends whenever I want, and I really, really miss eating out at restaurants. I also miss visiting the local library and bookstore, and popping into a coffee shop for a latte.

But I realize there are so many who don’t have even have the option of staying home, due to work obligations or other circumstances. I’m grateful that my job (both my corporate job and my writing career) are totally do-able from home.

The unexpected bright spot during these strange times has been the journey of The Paper Kingdom. (And before I go on, I’m happy to report that the inventory of the book is now replenished on Amazon and other retailers — whew!)

Back in early March, I had to cancel all of my book events, and then the book inventory ran out at some retailers (with no replenishment date in sight, given all the production shutdowns). I honestly thought the book was going to fizzle out just a week or two after its launch in late February. I was so disheartened. Lovely people wrote to cheer me up and remind me that a book has a long life. But it was really difficult to keep positive when Covid-19 hit the world and book promotion seemed like the last thing I should do. The common wisdom is that the few weeks leading up to a book launch and the few weeks afterwards are the most important. The sales activity during that time period indicates a book’s popularity, and often defines the ordering behavior of bookstores and other retailers. So with inventory missing from a lot of retailers (such as Amazon), how could we possibly maximize sales during that critical window? Right??

But then…

I woke up on Saturday, March 14 to find a ton of emails and social media messages from strangers, telling me that they heard my NPR interview and found themselves sobbing in their cars, kitchens, garages, etc. I hadn’t even known the interview was scheduled to air that weekend (the producer later emailed me the good news)! Anyway, I hadn’t heard NPR’s final cut of the interview, so I had no idea what these strangers had heard. So I went online, and lo and behold, there it was — the interview on NPR’s site.

Here’s the radio segment, but if you want to read the entire article with images, click on the link above.

WOW. NPR did an amazing job. Pascal and I had spent an hour in NPR’s recording studio back in February, and I honestly felt like I did a whole lot of babbling. But the production team edited the chat into six minutes of beauty. I absolutely love it.

And thanks to that amazing publicity, the book soared to the Top 100 books on Amazon, despite being out of stock. People were ordering and purchasing the book even though it was unavailable — thank you!!

Also, many wonderful folks ordered the book through their local independent bookstores, making The Paper Kingdom the #1 Bestseller for illustrated children’s books on the Indie Bestseller List!! I’m so, so, so grateful.

When I first received the email from my lovely editor Maria, notifying me of the bestseller status, I simply couldn’t believe it. It felt like a dream, floating on a cloud…and I’m not kidding. I was so happy for everyone who’d worked on the book. One of the reasons I wanted the book to do well was because an entire team of people had worked so hard on editing/illustrating/producing/marketing/promoting it!

And right around the same time, the ABC interview went live. I didn’t get to catch it on TV, but you can watch it here.

Life is so unpredictable. It shatters and exceeds my expectations so often. I am normally so quick to doubt, so quick to imagine the worst case scenario. I guess I need to have more faith. Thank you for reaching out to tell me that you believed in this book, especially when I thought all was lost.

The book has been such a gift to me in so many ways, and after being sold out for over a month after launch, the book is indeed back in stock — YAY! (It’s available on Amazon again, but I like to encourage folks to order through their local indie bookstores. Our local shops need our help more than ever.)

Lovely emails from readers have moved me so much and lifted me up. And thanks to readers like you, I’m reminded again and again of why I write: in whatever small way I can, I hope to inspire others and add something good to the world.

So please be well and take heart in knowing that we’ll get through this difficult time together. Spring is here and the flowers are in bloom. Below are some images taken from the sofa in my den where I’ve been spending many hours these days. When I look out these windows, I’m reminded that despite the current troubles in the world, our planet is full of beauty and and life offers many miracles.

This floor-to-ceiling window sits directly across from the sofa where I’ve been spending a lot of time. All that green fills me with peace and calm.

The first roses that started blooming in our backyard last week. They smell so incredible and fragrant. They remind me of a stylish Parisienne I once knew, who wore the most elegant outfits and smelled faintly of fresh roses.

Looking up at our (super abundant) lemon tree against the blue sky.

That fur ball is Sherwin snoring away next to me. And those are my favorite sweatpants + socks 🙂

READING GUIDE AND ACTIVITY FOR THE PAPER KINGDOM

I know a lot of parents with young children are looking for home school resources. Here’s a reading guide and an activity if you’d like to use The Paper Kingdom as part of your lesson plan.

(For other great resources, check out this list compiled by my local bookstore, Children’s Book World L.A. I recently watched Mo Willems’ Lunch Doodles series, and Episode #8 with Dan Santat is hilarious and charming.)

READING GUIDE FOR THE PAPER KINGDOM

Read the story aloud with your young audience. Flip through the book again to point out interesting aspects of the illustrations, such as Daniel sleeping in one corner of the apartment, the family driving to work on an empty street at night, the crown on Daniel’s head in the paper kingdom, the image on the back cover of the small family. (This is actually how I read any new picture book I pick up — I read the book in its entirety to get a sense of the story, and then I go back to savor the details in the illustrations.)

Questions for discussion (Feel free to pick just a few of them, depending on the age level of your audience. I included my responses in brackets.):

  • Which illustration is your favorite and why?

[HKR: I love the image when the family is driving to work. It’s so beautiful. Illustrator Pascal Campion is a master of nighttime scenes. Also, driving to work with my parents is one of my strongest childhood memories, so when I first saw this image, I was very moved. I remember our rickety old car, the empty streets, the city lights.]

  • Daniel’s parents tell interesting stories about the king, queen, and dragons. Why do you think they did that?

[HKR: I wanted to show how the parents encouraged Daniel to use his imagination. The construct of the paper kingdom also allowed me to end the story with a message to kids to dream big: Daniel’s parents encourage him to become the (mindful) king of a paper kingdom someday. Also, I tried to weave in subtle social commentary about the different classes in society, wage gap and income inequality, the lack of social services — this is all in the subtext, and not overtly described, because my main goal was to write an engaging story.]

  • When Daniel and his parents first enter the building, they see Sam. Do you think Daniel has met Sam before?

[HKR: When I was little, around 3 or 4 before I started attending school, I actually went with my parents to work pretty much every night. In this scene in the book, Sam tells Daniel that he’s grown — which indicates that Sam has seen Daniel before. I actually don’t remember the security staff, so Sam was a character completely out of my imagination.]

  • Why do you think Sam tells Mama and Papa that he “won’t tell anyone” that Daniel is there?

[HKR: It’s obviously unusual to take a kid to work at night, and my childhood experience would probably be impossible these days with heightened security and such. But taking their kid to work is what my parents did and were able to do back then. I wanted to be honest about our reality, and not romanticize the situation at all. We made the most of an unpleasant situation!]

  • Who do the king, queen and dragons represent?

[HKR: Since the story takes place in an office building, I intended the king/queen to represent the boss/executives (possibly even the executive assistant) and the dragons to represent the workers.]

  • Why do you think Daniel gets angry when his parents start cleaning the kitchen? (Interesting note: the illustrator zoomed in on Daniel’s face to convey his intense emotion at that moment.)

[HKR: When I was little, I felt sad and angry that my parents had to work so hard in an empty, messy building and continually faced so many financial problems. It actually weighed on me very heavily, and the memory of their toil defined the course of my life. It’s probably the main reason why I became a lawyer: I wanted to have a good job to help them out, and I also never wanted to face such financial hardship as an adult because I’d witnessed first-hand all the stress and anxiety it caused. Interesting fact: the office my parents used to clean was a law firm.]

  • Who are some hardworking people in your life?

[HKR: I think we can all agree, especially in this current world, that first responders, hospital staff, grocery store workers, restaurant staff, delivery workers, janitors and custodians, all the people helping to make our world safe, clean and livable are some of the most hardworking people ever.]

  • At the end of the story, Daniel is back in his bed. The story has come “full circle,” back to where it started. Do you think this is a good way to tell a story?

[HKR: A “full circle” story often creates a sense of satisfaction and completion. So this was a deliberate decision on my part as a storyteller. While writing the very first scene in the apartment, I knew I had to bring the family back home for the final scene, but with both subtle and momentous changes. See below for what I mean.]

  • When Daniel is back in his little bed at the end of the story, some things have changed. Can you describe those things?

[HKR: This may be a little abstract for young readers because the changes are mainly internal – Daniel’s realization that he can be king someday, his decision to be nice to the dragons if he does become king, his understanding that many people (and dragons!) work hard, etc.]

  • Read the author’s note at the end of the book. This story is based on the author’s childhood. Why do you think the author made the main character a boy instead of a girl?

[HKR: This is probably the most frequently asked question I get from readers. While writing the story, I went back and forth on whether the main character should be a boy or a girl. Even though the story is based on my personal history, I ultimately decided I didn’t want it to be an autobiography. I wanted readers to imagine any kid out in the world. That’s also the reason why I asked the illustrator Pascal to make the family appear ethnically ambiguous. The way the characters are drawn, they could be Italian, Asian, Latino, Spanish, Arab, Indian, Greek, etc. And that’s why I’m also glad that the author’s note appears at the end of the story instead of the beginning. My brilliant editor made that choice, and I think it’s because she also wanted the reader to experience the story in his or her own way, and then arrive at the author’s note at the end.]

ACTIVITY

Here’s an early sketch that the illustrator Pascal Campion did for the book, which you can use as a coloring page.

Provided courtesy of Pascal Campion: Coloring Page

When I wrote the story, the dragons of my imagination were actually short and chubby (kind of like my dog Sherwin!), so it was really cool to see Pascal’s interpretation of the dragons.

You can also draw your own dragons or any other page from the book. I’d love to see your drawings! Just ask someone with an Instagram account to take a photo and post your drawing and tag me @helenakurhee.

RECORDINGS

1) For kids ages 7 and older, the 6-minute NPR interview is a good one to listen to together.

2) For kids ages 6 and under, here’s an amusing video featuring paper dolls that discuss The Paper Kingdom, by picturebooking.com.

I also wrote a handful of fun website posts specifically for kids, about baby elephants, pet pigs, puppies, my favorite teacher, ice cream, etc. You can find them all under the category Hey Kids!

I’ll leave you with a heartwarming video. I wish I could serenade Sherwin like this, but I don’t know how to play the guitar and Sherwin is so heavy and restless he would probably injure my arm. Also, he looks slightly scared whenever I start singing.

Enjoy, and be well!

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