Author Spotlight: Tina Cho
Aug. 2, 2018
We are excited to feature picture book author Tina Cho and her new picture book, RICE FROM HEAVEN: THE SECRET MISSION TO FEED NORTH KOREANS, illustrated by Keum Jin Song (little bee books Aug. 14, 2018). Be sure to enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I grew up in Iowa and became an elementary teacher. I met my future husband at church. From my perch as pianist, I spotted him in the congregation. He was studying at Iowa State as a foreign student from South Korea. To make a long story short, we married and have two beautiful kids. We've moved around the States, and in 2010 moved to South Korea, so my husband could help out with a family business. I teach Kindergarten and am the elementary lead teacher at International Christian School Pyongtaek, situated between the U.S. bases of Osan and Camp Humphreys.
Back to writing. . . before Korea, I taught in Virginia, Iowa, and Arizona. Then we moved to California. At that time, the economy was spiraling downward, and it was hard to land a teaching job. So, I decided to pursue children's writing. I loved picture books after reading so many to my students. I researched and landed on the website of SCBWI. I contacted someone who gave me the name of author Nancy I. Saunders. She welcomed me to her in-person critique group and they taught me how to get started. I landed an educational writing gig, started writing for some children's magazines, all while learning about writing picture books. Since then, I've joined online critique groups, taken online courses, joined SCBWI, joined Julie Hedlund's 12x12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, read countless writing blogs, and joined kid lit Facebook pages.
Congrats on your new book, RICE FROM HEAVEN: THE SECRET MISSION TO FEED NORTH KOREANS. Tell us about it and what inspired you.
After moving to South Korea, I began hearing in church about helping North Korean refugees. I had never heard of them before in the States. My curiosity was piqued and I read articles about them. When my co-teacher told me that her family was tutoring refugees in English and going to send rice in balloons over the border, I asked if I could help.
|© Keum Jin Song|
So in May 2016, I helped with a North Korean refugee church group from Seoul to launch balloons over the border. We met at a secret location and even had South Korean police security! We launched 200 huge balloons. Each balloon carried six pounds of rice safely tucked away in a Styrofoam container. When I tried to picture North Korean families finding rice the next morning, I thought of the story in the Bible who manna or bread rained from heaven. This would be the title of my story, RICE FROM HEAVEN!
|© Keum Jin Song|
To protect the North Korean refugees' identities, I made my story fiction, but it's all based on the actual event. So, in my story, a little girl named Yoori helps Appa (her father) and other refugees, who escaped from North Korea to South Korea, send rice in balloons over the border. They encounter upset villagers and children who don't want them to help the enemy. Yoori becomes brave and stands up to the children. She tells them how her father used to eat bark from trees. The villagers eventually help, and the book ends with a beautiful spread of North Korean children discovering rice on the ground.
You've been writing a long time in the educational market. How did this experience help you transition to the trade market?
Since I had already been published in the educational market, I knew how to meet deadlines, work with editors, and research to write topics I knew nothing about. I was disciplined as a writer, BIC (butt in chair), the famous acronym by Jane Yolen.
You also have some other picture books coming out. Tell us about them. What other projects are you working on?
KOREAN CELEBRATIONS will debut early 2019 from Turtle Publishers in Vermont. This publisher produces books on Asian topics. When I first started writing, author Nancy I. Sanders taught me how to query publishers to land a book deal. So I did. I noticed they had wanted books about Japanese and Filipino holidays. Would they want one on Korean holidays? The editor emailed back, YES! This nonfiction children's book tells about Korean holidays and has crafts and recipes for kids.
My agent recently sold my latest picture book to Harvest House Publishers. BREAKFAST WITH JESUS is to be published January 2020. This nonfiction picture book is based on the iconic story in the Bible (John 21) where Jesus serves breakfast to his disciples. I showcase children around the world eating their various breakfasts and how they show Jesus’s love to others. Living in Korea has opened my eyes to many cultures living here and the diverse foods!
Currently, I’m working on two other Korean-inspired stories: Korean granny divers called haenyeo and Princess Jeonghi who helped her father develop the Korean language. I was inspired by the princess because of America’s #metoo movement, opening people’s eyes to women’s accomplishments.
What are the one or two things you did that most helped you in your writing and publishing career?
First, being in critique groups has been the most helpful. Last year I was in three online picture book critique groups. Each group has a different aura and brings something unique to the table. Being on the other side of the world makes it difficult for me to have in-person groups, so this has been most helpful. The second-best thing that helped, I think, is joining a kidlit community and taking online picture book classes. Oops, that’s two things. Studying the craft of picture book writing with others is invaluable.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I’m adopted. Yep, at 5 months of age I flew from South Korea to Iowa. Grew up there. I didn’t even eat rice when I met my future husband from South Korea in Iowa, go figure. I had a lot to learn, culture-wise, and still do.
Where can people find you online?
My website: tinamcho.com
Facebook: Tina Wheatcraft Cho
Tina Cho is the author of three picture books-- Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (Little Bee Books/Bonnier Publishing August 2018), Korean Celebrations (forthcoming Tuttle 2019) and Breakfast with Jesus (forthcoming Harvest House 2020). Although she grew up and taught in the United States, she currently lives in South Korea with her husband and two children while teaching at an international school.