When Daniel tags along with his parents to work — they are janitors in a big office building — he's surprised to find a fantasy world full of kings, queens, a throne room and dragons.
Author Helena Ku Rhee drew on her own childhood as she wrote The Paper Kingdom. Her parents were night janitors for a law office in Los Angeles. They couldn't afford a babysitter, so they brought her along.
"On those very long, late nights, my parents actually turned a very unpleasant situation into something magical," she tells NPR's Renée Montagne. "They would tell me funny stories about the people who occupied the offices by day. They zoomed me around in empty wastebaskets like they were race cars. I wanted to write a book about that magic and wonder they instilled in me."
All these years later, nights are still special to Rhee: Decades after her parents took her along to clean law offices, Rhee became a corporate lawyer — and now nighttime is when she can write.
"I was driving at night on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. when I got the idea for the story," she says. "So obviously, being out at night, I am aware of the people who are still working, the people who are occupying the spaces that everyone else has already emptied."
Illustrator Pascal Campion finds magic in the nights as well. He remembers when he was in college he'd go out for midnight walks around the city. "Night is a wonderful time for me," he says. Campion would see the lights on at the local radio station and would imagine someday having a job that allowed him to work after dark.
These days, he wakes up before dawn, around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. "I love being awake before everybody else ... it's my own world," he says.
Rhee had been following Campion on Instagram, and had the sense that he was the right illustrator for her story. "I just felt like, OK, this artist can truly capture visually what I was going for," she says. "I definitely wanted to convey that sense of — it's almost like a secret world."
Campion drew the whole story in pencil first. "There was something more spontaneous ... a more direct link to my emotions, which I thought was what I needed to put in there," he explains. He used the pencil drawings as a template and then reproduced and edited the illustrations digitally.
Campion liked that it wasn't "a loud story," but rather "a little moment story."
It's those moments with her parents that Rhee hoped to bring to life in The Paper Kingdom. "When you're that little and you see your parents working that hard ... you can't forget it," she says.
Rhee's father went on to become a machinist, making parts for planes and cars. Her mother became a seamstress. And now, after a lifetime of very hard work, they're finally retired.
Rhee still remembers the moment she told her parents that The Paper Kingdom was going to get published.
"We were sitting in a restaurant and it was the first time I saw my dad weep. It was a really emotional moment," she recalls. "I know that they thought they weren't doing enough for me. I know they felt bad that they had to take me to work with them late at night. But look what came of it: It's a beautiful piece of art that came of that hard time."
Rhee says she hopes to send a message to her parents and to all hardworking parents: "You feel like you're not doing enough for your children — but don't worry ..." she says. "They will survive and they'll take elements of beauty from even hardship."
Barrie Hardymon edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the children's book "The Paper Kingdom," when Daniel's babysitter cancels, his parents take him to their job as night janitors, and an ordinary office building transforms into a fantasy world, full of kings, queens, a throne room and dragons.
HELENA KU RHEE: "The Paper Kingdom" is actually based on my childhood.
MONTAGNE: Helena Ku Rhee is the author.
RHEE: When I was about 3, 4 years old, my parents worked as night janitors here in Los Angeles. And on most nights, they weren't able to either find a babysitter or afford a babysitter, and so I had to go to work with them.
And so "The Paper Kingdom" is about how on those very long, late nights, my parents actually turned a very unpleasant situation into something magical. They would tell me funny stories about the people who occupied the offices by day. They zoomed me around in empty wastebaskets like they were race cars. And so I wanted to write a book about that magic and wonder they instilled in me, and so voila.
MONTAGNE: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they work together to perfectly pair words and images. But illustrator Pascal Campion almost did not read the manuscript for "The Paper Kingdom" until his wife made him.
PASCAL CAMPION: She had tears in her eyes and was telling, Pascal, you have to read this. It's a really beautiful story. So I read it, and I liked the story so much that I wasn't quite sure how to do it justice. So it took me a few weeks, actually, before I figured out that, like, it was probably better to start on paper. So, actually, I took a bunch of pieces of paper and drew out the whole story in pencils. And I liked where I was going with this 'cause there was something more spontaneous and more - there's a more direct line to my emotions, which I felt was what I needed to put in there. And then I just reproduced them digitally. I used the pencil lines as template, and I just laid colors over them and refined them and redrew the whole thing and then edited on top of that.
RHEE: I had been following Pascal on Instagram - stalking him on Instagram, his images. And I just felt like, OK, this artist can truly capture visually what I was going for. I definitely wanted to convey that sense of - it's almost like a secret world.
CAMPION: It's like - that's actually exactly what I felt when I read it.
CAMPION: I think that's what attracted me to it so much, because it wasn't a loud story. It was really a little moment story, which is definitely something I am attracted to all the time.
One of my favorite pages is when the little boy goes and sees his parents in the storeroom. He's in the light. He's not working with them, but they're in the darkness and then getting all the elements. And that was the first page where I was like, I like this style where it's like - it's the no-line style I usually use, but it's a little bit more painterly. And I thought it was a really good mix of, like, the mood, without having too much moodiness, and the crisp clarity of a children's book, where you want the images to read very quickly so that your audience gets straight to the story.
The next one is when they're driving back at night, which is - I liked that one a lot because when my son saw it while I was doing it, he loved that image. He loved the car. He loved the feeling of being in this little car driving through those darkened cities.
RHEE: It's funny because I was driving at night on Wilshire Boulevard in LA when I got the idea for the story. So obviously, being out at night, I am aware of the people who are still working, the people who are occupying the spaces that everyone else has already emptied.
And even early in the morning - I'm not a morning person, but sometimes I wake up super early just because I have insomnia. And I realize, wow, there are people already up and working at 4 a.m. It's incredible. Pascal just raised his hand. I guess he works really early in the morning.
CAMPION: I do. I usually wake up around 4:30, sometimes 5, and get up. And I love being awake before everybody else is awake, when it's still dark because it's just - it's my own world. And then that's one of the things I really liked about the book as well. It's like it's their own world.
When I was in college, I remember that every night around 11:30, midnight, I would actually leave my apartment and go walk around the city. There's this radio station around the corner, and every night, I would pass in front of it and I would see a light in the building past midnight. I was always thinking, I would love to do this growing up - something where I could work at night and have my own little world. Night is a wonderful time for me.
MONTAGNE: Nights are special for Helena Ku Rhee as well. That's when she gets to write. The office building that Rhee's parents cleaned when she was little was a law office. That stayed with her as an adult. Rhee is now a corporate lawyer.
RHEE: I mean, when you're that little and you see your parents working that hard, that memory, you can't - I'm getting a little emotional - you can't forget it. You know that you have to work hard to help them out when you're an adult. And just to let everyone know, they actually went on and did different jobs in the future. My dad became a machinist making metal parts for cars and airplanes. My mom became a seamstress making clothing. So they moved on from that hard work as night janitors, and now they're retired, and they're thrilled with the book.
And when I first told my parents that "The Paper Kingdom" was actually going to become a book made by Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the world, we were sitting in a restaurant, and it was the first time I saw my dad weep. So it was a really emotional moment.
I know that they thought they weren't doing enough for me. I know they felt bad that they had to take me to work with them late at night, but look what came of it. It's a beautiful piece of art that came of that hard time. And I know they feel a lot of guilt for having to wake me up and take me to work with them. But, you know, I would tell my parents and all parents out there, all hardworking parents, you feel like you're not doing enough for your children, but don't worry about it. They will survive, and they'll take elements of beauty from even hardship.
MONTAGNE: That was author Helena Ku Rhee and illustrator Pascal Campion talking about their book, "The Paper Kingdom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.