We sat down for a chat with David Hill and Phoebe Morris, the great minds behind the latest story in the Kiwi Heroes series: Dinosaur Hunter.
Many of us at Penguin HQ had never heard of Joan Wiffen before Dinosaur Hunter, but now we’ve learnt about her, we’re massive fans! How did you first hear about Joan? And what was it about her story that really captured your imagination?
Phoebe: My Grandmother, Pauline Mahalski, was an accomplished scientist, natural history enthusiast, and a big fan of Joan Wiffen. She even had a signed copy of Joan's autobiography, which now lives on my own bookshelf. I also grew up with the Jurassic Park films (shout out to Sam Neill), the 'Walking with Dinosaurs' series, and a general interest in all things extinct. Becoming a fan of Joan Wiffen was unavoidable.
When I was young, I didn't think much about the significance of Joan's achievements relative to her age, gender, or prior inexperience. She was just a boss who found the first dinosaurs fossils in New Zealand. Reflecting back now as an 'adult', her achievements feel that much more impressive. It is baffling to me that she is not more widely known.
David: When I say “Joan Wiffen” to people, they mostly look confused. But if I then add “the dinosaur lady”, they nearly all go “Ah!” Since I grew up in Hawkes Bay, I had heard of Joan, but knew little about her. However, I know that both Phoebe and I had become keen on her as a subject a while back – Phoebe because she could draw her lovely dinosaurs, and me, because I was fascinated by the idea of this part-timer finding something that professional scientists didn’t believe existed. I was also intrigued by the idea of writing a detective story (which it is) about finding evidence for something that happened 70 million years ago.
One of my biggest takeaways from Joan’s story is that it’s never too late to discover your passion. As a writer and an illustrator respectively, presumably you’re both fortunate enough to say that your passion is already your job! But is there another skill or a hobby you haven’t investigated yet that you’d love to try your hand at?
Phoebe: Bee-keeping, dabbling in VR, stop motion animation, pottery...but given the current climate crisis I'll probably just have to get really bomb at growing vegetables and DIY.
David: Oh, I’d love to be an astronomer. In fact, I do belong to the New Plym Astronomical Society, and I’m giving a presentation at our next Club Night on July 27, if you’re passing through? But you have to be outstanding at Maths to be a real astronomer, and I am definitely not that.
David, what was a favourite fact you learnt about Joan in your research for the book?
I mention in the book that they blew up some big fossil-containing rocks with dynamite, so they could carry bits out. I didn’t have room to mention that one bit of rock, with a wonderful fossil inside, sailed through the air, plunged into the deepest part of the river, and it took them months to find it. I loved the idea of a 70 million year-old dinosaur sailing through the air – and the Wiffens watching with their mouths open.
Phoebe, what was your favourite part of Joan’s story to illustrate?
The very first spread, because in all honesty I don't get as much enjoyment from drawing people as I do from drawing animals, especially dinosaurs. I was also able to add some volcanoes in, and volcanoes are badass. Compared to other books in this non-fiction series (First to the Top, Sky High, Hero of the Sea), I took a bit more creative license with 'Dinosaur Hunter' overall. There are dinosaurs hidden throughout many of the pages, and even interacting with Joan. This is something I hope younger readers will enjoy, and it was a fun way to show the past and present colliding - the essence of paleontology.
In one sentence: Why does Joan Wiffen deserve to be a household name?
Phoebe: Can I answer with a Youtube link? I'm gonna do it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmMU_iwe6U
David: QUIET KIWI WOMAN WHO TAUGHT HERSELF IN HER SPARE TIME BECOMES ADMIRED BY EXPERTS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. That seems a pretty good reason.