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 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!
I hope each of you had a wonderful Christmas with your family and friends!
Thank you to all who read my blog interview with my agent Adria.
The winner of the critique by me is TAMARA RITTERHAUS! Congrats! Please send me your contact information!
My Christmas wish came true two years ago when Adria Goetz of Martin Literary became my literary agent. I couldn't ask for a sweeter agent. Adria knows my writing probably better than I do! She's helped me grow as a writer, and one of our sales is her brainchild.
I would like to help someone else have their wish fulfilled as well. So I asked Adria if I could interview her, and of course, she said yes.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’m a literary agent based about an hour south of Seattle, where I live in a Victorian-era farmhouse with my husband Alex and our two silver cats, Maple and Mulberry. Outside of publishing, my life is currently filled with house renovations, writing a middle grade novel, having dinner every other week with friends from our church, cooking and baking, swimming at my gym, and dreaming about the day when we’ll finally get to be foster parents.
2. How did you get into agenting?
Through an internship! When I was in college, I knew I wanted to work within the publishing industry in some capacity, so I applied for every internship I could find that was in any way, shape or form connected to publishing. I wanted to see the publishing beast from every angle, and the angle I liked the view of best was through the eyes of an agent. My agency internship was with Martin Literary—the agency I’m still with today. I stuck around as an intern for two years, then after graduating from the University of Washington, the agency hired me as a personal assistant. I attended the Columbia Publishing Course in New York, then returned to Seattle and made the leap of asking Martin Literary to take me on in an agent capacity. In some ways I feel like I grew up at this agency. I’ve been with Martin Literary since I was 19 years old!
3. What is your favorite part of being an agent?
Getting to feel like a Bookish Fairy godmother that makes people’s writing dreams come true.
4. What do you look for when acquiring a new client?
Kindness, savviness, talent, and a great work ethic.
5. What’s on your #mswl?
The top items are picture books by author/illustrators, a diverse YA Rom Com, a food-related graphic novel, and spooky picture books. I am also forever looking for magical stories, funny stories, and atmospheric stories.
6. What do you look for in a query letter?
An industry-standard word count, appropriate genre and age group (PB/MG/YA) classification, an intriguing blurb, spot-on comp titles, and something bio-related that will give me context for who the writer is as a person. I also like seeing that a writer is an SCBWI member, because that signals to me that they’re probably going to workshops, conferences, and plugged into a critique group, which means they’ll be a more polished and savvy client.
7. For those interested in the Christian market, what are editors asking for?
I’m hearing a lot of editors asking for books that foster genuine empathy, compassion, kindness, love, as well as books by diverse voices, and books that incorporate scripture in a unique way. I’m hearing editors say they don’t want books that are behavior-centered, overly didactic, or Bible story-based. Christian publishers definitely still publish Bible story-based books, but they’re often developed in-house.
8. How many clients do you currently represent? 34!
favorite color? Maroon
favorite food? Chicken pad thai.
favorite movies? The Princess Bride, Chocolat, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Big Fish,
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Pride & Prejudice, Practical Magic, Julie & Julia, The Breakfast Club, Chef, Stranger Than Fiction, Good Will Hunting, and Saving Mr. Banks.
favorite animal? Raccoons. I know that they have a terrifying disposition, but their little faces and paws are so cute.
favorite holiday? Halloween. I love all things spooky.
favorite books from your childhood?
My mom read every book in The Chronicles of Narnia series to me and my three sisters, which is such a sweet memory for me, so those books will always be dear to me.
When I could read on my own, I devoured A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I also loved the Magic Treehouse books, American Girl Doll books, Holes by Louis Sachar, and The Ancient One by T.A. Barron.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading like eight books at once. The current ones are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford, THE DOLLHOUSE by Fiona Davis, HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado, INSPIRED by Rachel Held Evans, INVISIBLE GHOSTS by Robyn Schneider, I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara, and WITHERING-BY-SEA by Judith Rossell.
If writers would like to query you after reading this, what are your instructions?
For picture book queries, they can include a query letter and the text of their manuscript pasted in the body of your email. If they’re an author/illustrator, they can send their full dummy as an attachment. For middle grade or young adult submissions, they can email me their query with the first chapter of their manuscript attached to the email, and a synopsis if they have one available.
Queries can be sent to Adria@MartinLit.com.
You can check out Martin Literary here.
For another recent interview of Adria, click here.
Thanks so much, Adria, for taking the time to answer my questions! You've been an awesome agent to work and grow with these past two years and FOUR book contracts (the last one to be announced soon).
In honor of our 2nd agent-versary (I just coined a new term), I'd like to host a FREE picture book critique or a query letter critique by ME (Tina Cho) before you send to an agent. If you'd like to be in the drawing, please say so in the comments. Someone will be chosen on Christmas Day!
I rode the subway to northern Seoul (a 2 hr ride) to Asia Pacific International School (APIS) and spoke in two sessions--3rd-5th graders and kindergarten - 2nd grades.
Upon arriving, I felt very welcome, as the kids outside for recess immediately knew who I was and said, "Hi Tina Cho." It was weird hearing my first name, because as a teacher, everyone calls me Mrs. Cho. The elementary principal was very welcoming and gave me a tour since I was a little early.
I used Google slides, which made it very easy to sign into the teacher's computer, and my presentation was waiting. I lugged a 6 lb or 3 kg bag of rice on the subway, go figure, so that kids could feel how heavy the rice hanging on each balloon was. (Thanks, Creating School Visits Facebook group for the ideas.) I read my book, had the Q&A time, and then did a little presentation about writing and publishing books. The older students started working on a great craft that my friend Laura Baker Mun developed and said we could use.
I gave bookmarks to the older kids, and they had me autograph them. The younger students were enthralled with the history of North & South Korea and asked many questions like --"Why was there a war? Why is Kim Jong Un mean?" To which another little kid gave the answer--"because his mom and dad were mean." Yep, that pretty much sums up the problem. :P Just love kids and their thinking.
I give a shout-out to my awesome husband who rode with me to the school b/c he thinks I would get lost in the massive subway system. ♥
On October 19th, 2018, I did an author Skype with two 4th grade classes at an international school in Ankara, Turkey. Everything was set. However, technology failed, and the teacher (my friend) had to resort to using her smartphone! The classes were extremely well behaved and quiet. Each child, who wanted to, came up to the camera and asked me a question. I had also prepared some slides of photos. Per the teacher's request, I shared how God gave me a passion to write and care for North Koreans. Mrs. Woo, their teacher, did an excellent follow-up by having the students write their reflections or letter to me. I'm happy that some girls decided to be a writer! And some Muslim students started reading the Bible!
Below are some of the letters + photos in a slideshow. Technology aside, they and I had a blast! Thanks, Mrs. Woo & Mrs. Gestring at Oasis International School!
And thank you, to the "Create Engaging School Visits" Facebook group for great advice for author Skypes! If you're an author, be sure to join that group if you want to present at schools.
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.
Even though my book debuted mid August, my first book signing is coming up on 9/29 at a small English bookstore in Seoul. For more details, see the poster on the left. I'll post pictures here afterward.
So what does an author need to remember or do for a book signing? Since I'm still learning, these are things on my TO DO list or DON'T FORGET List. I'm very organized, and so I need to write all these things down. Maybe this list will help someone out there. Maybe you know something that SHOULD be on my list. Do let me know!
1. Don't forget to take a couple Sharpie markers.
2. Create a child-friendly craft doable for elementary that parents won't want to throw in the trash. A meaningful craftivity. Don't forget to take all supplies for the craft.
3. Decide on refreshments. First, ask the bookstore if refreshments are allowed and who provides what.
4. Decide on what to wear! I don't want to clash with my book cover. hehe
5. Know the schedule of events for the book talk/signing.
6. Recruit my own teen-aged children to help with the above craft so I can mingle with people.
7. Don't forget to take bookmarks and business cards.
8. Ask someone (hubby) to take pictures of the event.
9. Advertise event on social media.
10. Practice reading your book.
11. Think of answers to questions they might ask.
12. Prepare any decorations if needed.
That's all I have for now. Those of you who have gone through this, give me your advice!
Rice from Heaven has been out for two weeks now. School has started in many places. If you'd like to use my book with your students or homeschoolers, please take note of the resources available on the graphic above. There are teacher guides for lower elementary and upper elementary. And the coolest thing, is that a writer friend directed me to a website where you can earn rice for needy countries. They are currently working on a newer version of the game here. You can also check FreeRice on Facebook for additional updates. I think students would have a blast earning rice + learning vocab along the way.
For U.S. educators, I'm available for Skype/Google Hangouts on your Friday mornings and a couple days the end of September during our Korean Thanksgiving holiday. The first 15 minutes are free. If you'd like a longer time, please contact me for pricing.
Korean educators, it looks like I'll be doing a book signing in September at What the Book Bookstore in Itaewon. Still waiting on the exact date. They have my book available. :)
I heard from one of my art teacher friends in CA, that she used my book for her Heroes Around Me art project. Heroes can be regular people helping others. Let me know how you used Rice from Heaven and your students' reactions! Thank you!
Lastly, Congratulations to Patricia and Ellen, winners of signed bookplates and a little gift from Korea :)
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!