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.
Today is Korea's Independence Movement Day, a holiday, in which I had no school so I caught up on writing projects like this blog. They are celebrating 100 years of freedom from Japanese rule and honoring the lives of those who stood up for freedom, giving up their lives in the process. I'm researching one of those people for my next story.
Also, in the wake of this Independence holiday, President Trump held a 2nd summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. I'm thankful to God that Trump walked away and stood his ground for Kim Jong Un to dismantle ALL nukes, not just the major ones. Plus, I'm horrified over the human rights problem in that country.
Last Friday was Reading Day at my own school. I spoke to our elementary about North Korea and the back story of Rice from Heaven. The students made these balloons and wrote their wishes/prayers for North Korean children. This project was thought up by my friend Laura Baker Mun. I give her all the credit. Believe it or not, students living here on the Korean peninsula don't know about North Korean refugees or how kids are living not more than an hour away from them. It was a big eye opener, and good comments from parents have been trickling in. I think an impact of compassion was instilled in their hearts.
If you or a teacher/librarian would like a visit or Google Hangout Visit, let me know. I enjoyed talking to kids in NY and TX last month for World Read Aloud Day. They, too, had no idea.
It's March. Spring! Happy Writing, all!
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!