First Stories

First Stories!! Featuring Tina Cho

Welcome back, dear readers! Thank you for taking a bit of your time to “listen in” to my conversation with Tina Cho. Tina’s recently released picture book – THE OCEAN CALLS – is a wonderful combination of lyrical writing, fascinating premise, and intergenerational story that leaves adult and child readers feeling snuggly and cuddly. This book is a fan favorite at my house! So I am beyond excited to welcome Tina to “First Stories” to discuss her very first manuscript…wait, manuscripts?

You’ll have to read on to see what I mean! And…hint, hint…there’s a giveaway opportunity at the end as well! And it is HUGE!

But first, a little more about Tina Cho and her lovely writing:

Tina Cho is the author of four picture books– Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (Little Bee Books 2018), Korean Celebrations (Tuttle 2019), My Breakfast with Jesus: Worshipping God around the World (Harvest House 2020), and The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Kokila/Penguin Random House 2020). Her lyrical middle grade graphic novel, The Other Side of Tomorrow, debuts from Harper Alley in 2023. After living in South Korea for ten years, Tina, her husband, and two teenagers reside in Iowa where Tina also teaches kindergarten. 

Me: Tina, a BIG thank you and welcome to First Stories!

Tina: Thank you, Heather, for having me.

Me: So, when I first reached out to you, asking if you would be willing to talk about that very first manuscript that really got you into writing – seriously, pursuing publication, in a critique group, attending conferences, etc. – you were hesitant at first. You told me it was because your first story was nothing like what you are writing now. Can you tell me more about your “first story.” And your second story? What inspired you to write them? What were they about?

Tina: My 1st picture book manuscript was titled Rumble Tumble Mouse and is totally different from my published picture books. It’s about a little mouse who learns about earthquake safety from his mom and siblings. He disobeys his mom and wanders out in the woods where he experiences an earthquake. I wrote this because at the time I started writing for kids, we were living in California, the place of earthquakes. While revising, I remember, we had two quakes!

My 2nd picture book manuscript was titled Kimbop and Chocolate Cake, about a girl who has a bi-cultural family. Her father is from Korea, and her mother is an adopted Korean. The girl has to decide what foods to take to her 3rd grade Culture Day. She is confused because she has to attend Korean language school to learn the language and culture, yet also lives and eats a very American cuisine. This story was inspired by my own family. While living in California, we sent my daughter to Korean class on Saturdays at our local Korean church.

Me: Wow, those two stories are very different, but I love and appreciate the variety! So, where are these stories now?

Tina: Both stories reside in my Dropbox files, hidden away. HA!

Me: Ah, yes, the folder of doom! Ha! I haven’t even been seriously writing that long and I already have many stories that may never “see the light of day.” But maybe one day, you’ll decide to revisit Kimbop or Rumble Tumble Mouse!

Are there any themes in these stories that you can see in your writing today?

Tina: The themes from Rumble Tumble Mouse are that of the character wanting adventure and to see the world. The themes from Kimbop and Chocolate Cake are the Korean cultural themes that are present in all four of my picture books.

Me: Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?

Tina: Well, both stories are quite long. Story #1 is 924 words, and the second story has 856 words. My fiction stories today are never that long! I wrote Kimbop and Chocolate Cake in first person point of view using a 3rd grade character. Oh my! Picture books today aren’t geared toward third graders. I can clearly see why it was rejected. I’m embarrassed that I even sent it out on submission.

But my critique partners at the time were very kind and gave great feedback. They liked my stories and plot. They pointed out when I was telling instead of showing a scene. They pointed out word choices and how to tighten up words. And thankfully, they’ve stuck by my side, because since 2008, we have stayed together in a critique group called Pens and Brushes.

Me: WOW! I love hearing that your critique group has been together so long! Almost fourteen years. Finding my critique partners has been transformative for me – they are my dear friends as well as fellow writers who challenge and encourage.

Why are these “first stories” special to you? How were they important for your writing journey?

Tina: I’d say these two stories are special because they were based on events going on with my children. My stories seem to represent the setting in which we live. Since we lived in South Korea for 10 years, from 2010-2020, my four picture books that were published during those years all have Korean cultural threads running throughout. Now that we’ve moved back to the states, I wonder what will pop into my writing!

Me: I just had to drop in this beautiful spread from THE OCEAN CALLS to highlight how important setting – and understanding/experiencing the setting for yourself – can be to the depth of a book. In your interview with Kim Chaffee and Kirsti Call on the “Picture Book Look” podcast, I remember you describing your trip to see the haenyeo divers – where they worked and how they worked. And hearing their whistles (which are in this spread). Experiences that add such depth to the story.

But now, I would love to hear about your latest project! You have a graphic novel-in-verse releasing in 2023 – THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW. What was it like working on a graphic novel? Did you work closely with an illustrator for this project? How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first stories”?

Tina: This is so interesting to compare first stories to the story about to be published!

First, I’ll say that The Other Side of Tomorrow is a lyrical middle grade story about two kids from North Korea who escape along the Asian Underground Railroad and eventually come to the U.S. It’s based on real lives!

I came up with the idea after moving to Korea and learning about North Korean refugees in church. I researched all about them on the Internet and interviewed one of the masterminds behind escapes and spoke with two N. Korean children. I originally wrote this as a picture book, go figure, only to rewrite it as a middle grade since it was so complex.

I guess this would relate to those first stories because it has adventure, seeing the world, various cultural foods, experiencing Korean and American culture, etc… After my agent suggested to rewrite this as a lyrical middle grade novel, an editor at Harper Collins asked if she could publish it as a graphic novel. She even had the perfect illustrator, Deborah Lee, a Korean American illustrator!

Deborah did some sample sketches, and I fell in love with the graphic novel form for this story. I did several revisions for my editor reworking it into graphic novel form. And even more fun, I get to help critique the sketches because this story is based on real events and some settings that I’m familiar with. So to answer your first question, it’s been fun and unreal! I don’t have a cover yet. But I know it will be special!

If you want to know more nitty-gritty about this deal, see my blog post here:

Me: AHHHH!!! This book sounds AMAZING! I know my pre-teens will love it, and I can’t wait to see it on shelves. What a fascinating, but difficult, story to highlight. How crucial to shed light on the variety of stories that are lived by people all around the world.

Your insights into your own first manuscripts – looking back years later – are so helpful for all of us. Remembering to look for themes in our manuscripts, relying on critique partners, and being willing to pivot when a major editor asks you to do something new…and fun!

Tina, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about your “First Stories”!

Tina: Thank you so much for having me!

And, as promised, reader, here’s the info for Tina’s generous giveaway. She has offered one PICTURE BOOK CRITIQUE to a lucky winner! To enter, please comment below. You can earn an additional entry into the random drawing by retweeting this blog post on Twitter. The giveaway will end on Wednesday morning, October 13, at 8:00 am and the winner will be announced on this blog post and on Twitter on Thursday, October 14. Good luck!

22 thoughts on “First Stories!! Featuring Tina Cho”

  1. Tina, it’s so inspiring to read how while first stories don’t always get published, they still capture a meaningful time for you!

    Also, thank you Tina and Heather for generously doing this giveaway!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Heather, for this wonderful interview with Tina. It was so interesting to hear about her first stories. I love how she writes about Korean culture. I loved learning about the divers. So inspirational! I can’t wait for her graphic novel to come out. Congratulations, Tina! Thank you both for the giveaway ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This was such a great read and inspiring for me as I I’m revising several manuscripts and getting ready to get in the query trenches again. I hope those stories filed away find the light of day because they sound so interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for this fascinating interview. I loved hearing how Tina grew in picture book writing, taking forward early themes while developing her lyrical voice.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s interesting to follow the ways the manuscripts evolve from the first to the graphic novel as both the market and Tina’s own life evolve. Yet, the two constants are your commitment to write and your critique group!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. This was so fun to read!

    But I do wish more picture books featured 3rd and 4th graders. In 3rd, many if not most students chose picture books to read during independent reading, and the curriculum included almost all PBs!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I loved learning more about Tina. I recently profiled her fascinating book on my Instagram page @landoflibros. It was wonderful to learn more about her writing process! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love the focus of this blog, Heather! It’s a great reminder that we all have fro start somewhere. And Tina, thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your first manuscripts, which you may have wanted to let die in Dropbox! Congrats on your successes, current and forthcoming.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love the First Stories ideas – I have a bundle of “nope, not this one” stories. Your gracious use of your life experience is a gift to tall of us!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I love reading about stories that never made it, it normalizes not being successful instantly and captures moments of learning and growth. The passion and love that went into those stories did eventually get transformed into different stories that held the theme you held in your heart.

    Liked by 2 people

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