In 2010, we moved to South Korea for my husband's work. At churches I heard about people helping North Korean escapees. I had never heard about them in the states. I researched on the Internet, reading all the articles I could find, watching You Tube videos about them. Most of the articles kept mentioning a Pastor Chun, calling him the "Schindler of Asia." So in 2012 I looked him up, found his church & school for North Korean children, and with my husband translating, I interviewed him & two North Korean boys who had recently escaped. Afterward I set out to write a picture book manuscript about this fascinating story. First draft was written November 29, 2012. It went through 16 miserable drafts with my faithful critique group Pens & Brushes, until a couple of them piped up and said I should try this as a middle grade novel.
A MG novel? I had never written one before. Another critique partner, Nancy I. Sanders, had a self-paced course "How to Write a Middle Grade Novel in One Month," which I took. I already had the basic plot line. I wrote the 21 chapters between March/April 2015. Revised 4 times with some beta-readers & used editor Cheryl Klein's book Second Sight. Then someone told me about the Scholastic Asian Book Award--submit a story about Asia, written by an Asian. That's me. I had nothing to lose. I was floored when someone contacted me that my MG novel had been shortlisted for this award, and would I fly to Singapore for the results? In May 2016, I took a day off from teaching, flew to Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content conference, when I discovered the renowned picture book historian & author, Leonard Marcus, was one of the judges! My MG novel titled at that time, Chasing Freedom: The Asian Underground Railroad, won 2nd place, or what they called 1st Runner Up. Scholastic Asia wanted to publish. I blogged about that experience here.
After receiving the contract from Scholastic Asia, I didn't feel that it was right for me and my story. $500SG + few edits. I knew that since it was my first novel, it needed a lot of work. After talking to many professionals in the industry, I passed.
In December 2016, I signed with my wonderful agent, Adria Goetz, who loved a couple of my picture book manuscripts. I told her about this novel, and she agreed to help. From 2017-2018 I revised with Adria. She sent it out to editors, and they sent back rejections. I revised per their suggestions. She sent it out again. 11 rejections. Then Adria had a wild idea. Try writing it as a novel in verse. She had just sold one, and my previous picture book, RICE FROM HEAVEN: THE SECRET MISSION TO FEED NORTH KOREANS was written as a lyrical picture book. Adria knows my writing better than me. I loved reading novels in verse but had never written one.
So I read the great novel in verse authors' works that I could get my hands on, checked them out from the library when I was in the states during summer, even took an SCBWI Novel in Verse webinar with author K.A. Holt. During the latter part of 2018 - beginning of 2019 I worked on rewriting this as poetry.
Until March 2019, I sort of QUIT. I was depressed. Who was I to try to write a novel in verse? or a MG? I don't classify myself as a poet. Some parts of the story just weren't coming together. Being across the ocean from my agent, somehow Adria could sense something was wrong. She emailed me to have a phone chat in April. Just what I needed. Adria was such an encourager, a believer in me & my writing, and gave me a great pep talk & kick in the pants, so to speak.
With encouragement & prayers, I finished the 5th novel in verse revision that May, and we changed the title to The Tune without Words b/c there was already another book with my previous title. She sent it out to editors. In June editor Carolina from Harper Collins asked if we were interested in publishing it as a lyrical novel in verse GRAPHIC NOVEL.
A graphic novel?! Truthfully, I had only read 1 previous graphic novel of my niece's--one of Raina Telgemeier's books. I'm not really into say-- superhero graphic novels & comics. (no offense!) I did read comics growing up, The Sunday Funnies like Peanuts, Garfield, Dennis the Menace, Cathy, etc...
But graphic novels have changed! Blogging friends showcased graphic novels that were being published about historical topics and nonfiction. Articles are being written on the effects of students reading them in the classroom. While in Iowa during the summer, one that I really liked was HIDDEN: A CHILD'S STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST written by Loic Dauvillier & Greg Salsedo, illustrated by Marc Lizano. So I told Adria, yes, let's go for it.
The editor from Harper Collins found an illustrator, Deborah Lee, a Korean American illustrator in CA, who would illustrate a sample poem so we could get an idea. She sent illustration samples in August. I fell in love with the characters & color palette. It was so poignant & made me cry. I want children in the U.S. and around the world to know that as we speak--some kids in N.K. are escaping or living hidden in China. With Deb's illustrations, this story will really come to life and especially bring out the cultural aspects that people might not be familiar with.
I signed the contract in November, my biggest yet, & received first edits in December which I submitted & will continue to revise until it's perfecto! Carolina has been a wonderful editor for this story.
But even better--God has perfect timing. I've been wanting this story to be out in the world, but it wasn't the time yet. Most of you know I teach at an international school in S.Korea. I've wanted them to do a service ministry with North Korean refugees but it never worked out, until now! The same North Korean school run by Pastor Chun agreed to have some of our high school students come in March to do an English camp with their 40 North Korean children. I'm one of the teachers on the team. And now I can share with him that this story finally sold & will become reality in 2022! God is good. His timing is perfect.
Sorry to ramble on and on, but don't give up on your story. If you believe that it needs to be told, find the best format/genre/style, take classes, study the craft, and it will get out into the world ❤️
Believe it or not, my first writing conference happened a world away in Singapore! The annual Asian Festival of Children's Content celebrates books by Asian authors or children's books with an Asian setting. I left my apt in Korea at 4:30 a.m., took a bus to the Korean airport for my 9:00 a.m. flight, arrived in Singapore around 2:00 p.m in time for the Scholastic Asian Book Awards ceremony at 7:00 p.m.
It all started the summer of 2015 when I took Nancy I. Sanders' online course Write a Middle Grade Novel in 1 Month. I had a picture book story that some of my peeps and agents suggested trying as a novel. So I did. I wrote it in May 2015, sent it out to beta readers, and revised in July/August. My critique partner Carrie Finison and the Sub It Club Facebook group told me about the Scholastic Asian Book Award deadline of September 1st, in which an author of Asian descent living in Asia who has a book set in Asia could apply. So for fun, I submitted, dreaming of flying to Singapore the next May.
Sometimes dreams come true! In April, the conference organizer emailed saying my manuscript Chasing Freedoms: The Asian Underground Railroad was shortlisted along with four other contestants out of 50-60 submissions (can't remember the exact number). Soon I saw my photo and synopsis that I had composed as an exercise from Cheryl Klein's Second Sight on their website, newsletters, and even the Singapore Times Newspaper!
Chasing Freedom: The Asian Underground Railroad (Author: Tina Cho, South Korea) Two unhappy kids. Two stories that lead to separate escapes across the North Korean border to China. Brokers, a pastor, and other people help Yunho and Joo Ri escape to freedom along the Asian Underground Railroad through China, Laos, Thailand, and eventually to America. Soldiers, child slavery, fake IDs, jail time, and trekking through jungles are difficulties they must face. Will they be caught and repatriated back to North Korea and sent to brutal concentration camps? In the worse moments, Yunho and Joo Ri come to terms with their past, their fears, and face the enemy head on.
Thankfully God worked out all the details so I could attend. I'm thankful to my job and husband who allowed me to go.
One thing I love about Singapore is that people speak English. It was so refreshing to order at Subway at the airport, and the clerk understood me. A funny thing about getting a taxi is I followed the driver to the car, and he opened the right side front door. I thought he was being a gentleman, and I almost climbed in. Except he climbed in first! Singaporeans drive on the opposite side (rt side) unlike Americans and Koreans. Feeling embarrassed, I quickly ran to the other side of the car and let myself in. The palm trees and green vegetation reminded me of California. I didn't mind the heat (90F) or humidity too much because I was on an adventure.
Being at a hotel by myself was weird at first, but then I enjoyed the quietness of no kids, students, homemaking, etc... The awards ceremony was very formal with a Singaporean government official attending--the Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Education handed out awards. His Excellency, the Ambassador to Singapore from Japan was also there since Japan was the country of focus for the conference.
The winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award was an Indian author, whose premise I thought was really good! She's had a previous novel published as well. I was happy to receive 1st Runner Up, and the editor from Scholastic Asia wants to publish it. I look forward to hearing details from her.
I also loved connecting with online writing friends and people whose blogs I've read or are popular in the kidlit world--Emily Lim I met in 12x12, Leonard Marcus I've heard and read about in SCBWI, Cynthia Leitich Smith who runs the Cynsations writing blog, Charlene Chua, Canadian illustrator whom I met in the SCBWI "Blueboards," and Cynthea Liu, of the popular Red Light Green Light contest.
Look for more about my experience on June 2nd at the Grog Blog!
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!