I thought I'd update my blog and let you know what's going on in my part of the world. If you follow me on social media, you probably already know. Our school has been closed by the government for 1 week due to coronavirus. We are now starting week 2. And the government just announced schools will be closed through 3/23. God help us all! At the time of this writing, there are 4,335 cases in Korea with 26 deaths. Every hour the number rises.
My day has now given over to online learning or schooling. Since I teach kindergarten, I rewrite my lessons for the parents to teach to their children. I video myself teaching at least 1 lesson every day. I upload videos, worksheets, all assignments to an online platform called Class Dojo. Students work from home and upload their assignments to their online portfolio. Writing lessons in a new way, working with parents, videoing, checking assignments--it's more time consuming than regular teaching. My teenage children receive their instruction through Google Hangouts and Google Classroom etc... They are online from 9 - 3:30 with a break for lunch. We are not the only country doing this. Most countries in Asia are now doing online school. Some have been doing it since January!
Can we go out? Sure, but on our own risk. We wear a mask wherever we go, but as they say, the best protection is washing hands with soap & warm water. There are 5 cases in my big city, most of the cases are in the southern part of Korea. Many times throughout the day, the government sends emergency alert text messages telling us if someone in the area just became infected and what stores and places to avoid.
Because the government says not to have assemblies, we even had online church, live streaming. It's easy to get downcast, having to stay inside all the time. But we have to remember, God is greater than the coronavirus! Pastor shared the popular verse, Isaiah 40:31 "but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Be like an eagle and soar above the storm! Whatever your "storm" is today, rise above it and just keep writing!
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 ❤️
Hope for the New Year
Happy 2020! A new year of hope. My word for the year.
"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you HOPE and a future." Jeremiah 29:11
I received a perfect gift from my publisher Harvest House--a book called My Unedited Writing Year by Hope Lyda to help spawn creativity in my writing! It's like a journal in which I write down ideas and answers to their prompts.
2019 was a great writing year for me. KOREAN CELEBRATIONS published by Tuttle debuted. I worked on revisions and edits for My Breakfast with Jesus which comes out June 2nd from Harvest House and revisions for The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story from Kokila imprint of Penguin Random House which comes out August 4th.
My agent sold another manuscript. Details will be announced soon. I can't wait to share!
Meanwhile, I'm in the midst of a 3-week Christmas break from school and will return to teaching my precious kindergartners on January 9th. I'm also trying to recover from bronchitis which seems like I've had the past month or more. I'm participating in Tara Lazar's Storystorm, writing down a book idea each day in January.
2020 will be an interesting year. My daughter will graduate from high school. Acceptances to various universities are rolling in. My two picture books mentioned above will publisher this summer. I spent New Year's Day writing and revising. Scroll down for a fun, cuddly, inspiring photo from my research!
You never know where writing research will take you! This, by far, is my favorite photo from it. Happy New Year! May you be blessed with abundant writing, creativity, and contracts.
Two more books on the way~
They are almost twins. My Breakfast with Jesus publishes with Harvest House Publishers June 2, 2020. The Ocean Calls publishes with Kokila/Penguin Random House August 4, 2020. It's been so much fun watching them come from story idea, to selling to a publisher to being assigned an illustrator to seeing the final covers! Now I'm awaiting the arcs. My Breakfast with Jesus was actually the story idea of my awesome agent, Adria Goetz, who told me I should write this story. She knows my writing better than I do! And it sold. The Ocean Calls started with a tweet on Twitter that I read about haenyeo. I was fascinated with these granny divers, looked them up and was hooked. There were no picture books about them. So I wrote it after lots of research and traveling to watch them. More on that later!
In the meantime, more book news is on the way. While I wait, I continue to write & revise my WIPS with my three critique groups. And I'm thankful to attend SCBWI online webinars and hear more great writing advice. How's your writing?
My 2nd picture book is out today, August 13th, 2019, from Tuttle Publishing. This nonfiction children's book is like it says, all about Korean festivals, holidays, and traditions with recipes, games, and crafts mixed in.
A colleague asked me which of my picture books is my favorite. I told her what most authors say--each book is like our own child. We love them all. Korean Celebrations, in particular, had a long birthing period, NINE YEARS from conception to birth!
If you want to know the backstory, keep reading.
Before we moved to Korea in 2010, I was part of a wonderful in person critique group in California headed by the awesome author, Nancy I. Sanders. She lands many contracts BEFORE she writes the book. She told us her strategy. She queries publishers with ideas that could fill a hole in their publishing line. So I tried it. I came across Tuttle Publishing in Vermont and noticed they had a book on Japanese Celebrations and Filipino Celebrations. But nothing about Korean holidays. So I came up with four book ideas, including Korean Celebrations, and sent them a query on July 29, 2011. FIVE months later, the acquisitions editor emailed and said yes, send detailed proposals, starting with Korean Celebrations.
Insert: [September 2010 our family moved to South Korea for my husband's work. I noticed that Korea had holidays almost every month. So that was another reason for writing this book. I wanted my kids to know about the holidays.]
I researched and wrote up an outline (TOC) and sent it in. FIVE months later I had heard nothing and inquired. My proposal had been passed to the children's editor, Terri Jadick. NINE months later (March 2013) Terri got back to me stating they really needed an illustrator before she could propose the book to the committee. So the illustrator search began.
Two possible illustrators made sketches for the job. But for various reasons, they turned down the project. Finally, July 2017, I signed the contract, as they had found a new illustrator, Farida Zaman, a Toronto based artist who had traveled worldwide. I love her watercolor illustrations. By this time, I had an agent, the lovely Adria Goetz, and so she handled everything for me.
October 18, 2018 I saw via pdf the inside of my book. It's always a happy day when you see your words come to life. February 5, 2018 they sent me the cover, And July 16, 2019, while at my sister's house in Iowa, I received my book copies.
And today, August 13, 2019, KOREAN CELEBRATIONS is out in the world!
The moral of this backstory: Never give up on a book idea. It might take years, but it's worth it. And YOU can come up with book ideas and query a publisher, too! It might just work!
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 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!
My 2019 Word Is...
And the Winner Is...
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!
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!