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 ❤️
I was invited back to help with the rice project which I wrote about in my picture book RICE FROM HEAVEN. This time, it was the prepping of the rice and balloons for the North Korean refugee church's next launch. They wait for rainy weather to send the balloons up. So Saturday June 1st, my husband and I rode the subway for an hour to Seoul. (Previously I had helped with the balloon launch in 2016 and didn't get to participate in this prepping step.)
It was very organized with a meeting first. The N. Korean pastor told of their project's history and purpose. Before he was a Christian he just wanted North Korea to basically be destroyed. But after he became a Christian, God placed on his heart to show love to them, and one of the ways is through this rice balloon project. The church buys bags of rice, around 20 kg per bag, and then they measure the rice into plastic bags, put 3 plastic bags in a Styrofoam box, and tape them up. They also buy plastic to make their own balloons. My husband and I helped on the rice side. Most of the volunteers are North Korean refugees. Some are South Koreans or foreigners like myself who either attend the church or are helping with the project.
The pastor also brought out my book and showed the volunteers as some were new. I'm thankful to support such an important project. And an added bonus: I met a North Korean who studied at Iowa State University last year in their intensive English program. (I'm from Iowa.) What a small world for a North Korean refugee to study in Iowa! As I said in the author's note of my book, we may never know if they even receive this rice. But I hope they feel the love and care that was sent to them. Perhaps it will be a malnourished soldier who takes it. I've heard a true story of a soldier who found literature, escaped, and found the organization that sent it.
I wrote this Dec. 22, 2018, and saved it to publish for Mother's Day.
We enter the small men’s hair salon, and a middle-aged woman with her hair neatly piled up greets us. I give her my humble plate of American Christmas cookies. At first, she doesn’t seem to know what they are until my husband explains again—Merry Christmas.
All smiles, she shares with two other men and another who walks in. “Delicious,” she says in Korean munching on a cookie and half a banana chocolate chip muffin.
After a bit of small talk, we show her a photo of the cover of my book Rice from Heaven. She’s in awe that I participated in this, but she immediately starts talking about how North Koreans have to report if they find anything like this; otherwise, they get watched. So I contemplate if maybe this wasn’t so good, sending balloons over. But the refugees who funded this must know.
This leads to us asking more about her past. She escaped 14 years ago (2004) with a group of twelve, including her teenaged son and a broker leading them. It was winter time, and they covered themselves with some kind of white sheet to not be seen by soldiers. They crossed the river, water up to her chest. But when they got to China, a new broker awaited. When she discovered they would be exploited, she fled. In retaliation, the broker sent her son back to North Korea where he spent time in a concentration camp. He had so little to eat, only kernels of corn. They had to pick cabbages out of a field. They would hide cabbages in the crux of their shirt and nibble on it like rabbits.
She laughs at the image and sound of a rabbit eating. But then her laughter turns to tears as she tells us her son got so cold and lost two toes from hypothermia. Eventually they released him due to his medical condition. After making her way to South Korea via the Asian Underground Railroad, she tried to send him money a couple times, but each time it was confiscated. Of course, he is being watched. So to prevent further complications, she quit communicating with him. It’s been ten years. She misses him. As she weeps, I can feel her ache. She also has a daughter and husband that she left. She grabs my cookies and munches away her stress.
The news shows Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She frowns and lays into the Korean president. “It’s all for show,” she says. As I flip through a women’s magazine, there’s another photo of the two together. I close it. I don’t dare ask what she thinks of Kim Jong Un visiting Seoul, another hot topic in the news.
I feel guilty for prying into her past for an interview. I silently pray that she will be reunited with her loved ones. For now, she seems to be doing well, having just opened her second hair salon in Pyeongtaek. (She used to cut hair in North Korea.)
I walk away with a heavy heart. Sad for her but feeling deeply blessed to have my son at home with me, well and alive, along with my daughter and husband. I ask for her business card. I know it’s not her real name. She shows us her real name on her Korean I.D. The last names at least match. I will pray for Mrs. Sohng.
As I tuck my son in bed, pray and kiss him goodnight, my eyes tear over as I think of Mrs. Sohng and all the women who long for a missed child.
May God reunite families. Tell your children you love them. Who knows when the last time is? ♥
Today, Sunday, October 14th, 2018, I had the privilege to give a copy of RICE FROM HEAVEN: THE SECRET MISSION TO FEED NORTH KOREANS to the North Korean Pastor who led the group of us two years ago to send balloons of rice over the border to North Korea. Another friend who had gone with us that night showed the pastor her copy of the book earlier this morning. He said he almost cried. He was very touched.
My husband, son, and I traveled by subway to Seoul, about an hour away. Due to wrong directions, we arrived in time for the last song of the service, go figure. But he announced to the small congregation that I was there, and he held my book up. Many people came up to me and said "thank you," and that they were very touched. Greatest of all, I re-met a North Korean defector from the event in 2016 and met a new one, both of whom speak English :) Now I can interview them and get more nitty-gritty details. And I met a Korean adoptee like myself who will be a big help on another WIP (work-in-progress). I also met a guy who defected three years ago, and he is now in the South Korean military special forces who will drop by parachute with his unit onto North Korean soil if there is a war. (Even though the news makes everything sound peaceful, we don't know if Kim Jong Un will truly hold up his end of the bargain...)
We ate the church's lunch and had great conversation. The pastor thinks it's a good idea the South Korean President and the North Korean leader are talking, as the pastor is for unification. But as for the people living there now, things are still not so good.
Hopefully, I can visit them again soon. I'm happy to know they are pleased with RICE FROM HEAVEN. By the way, they do the balloon launch every year.
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!