I love the ocean and I love swimming in it. So when I heard about the picture book in today’s Simply 7 about Korean “mermaids,” you KNOW I had to track the author down!
Tina Cho is the author of four picture books– Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (Little Bee Books August 2018), Korean Celebrations (Tuttle August 2019), My Breakfast with Jesus: Worshipping God around the World ( Harvest House June 2, 2020), and The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Kokila/Penguin Random House Aug. 4, 2020). Her lyrical middle grade graphic novel, The Tune Without Words, debuts from Harper Alley in 2023. You can learn more about her at her website.
“The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story” is a wonderful story of generations of women in Korea who practice a tradition of free diving. They can hold their breath underwater for incredibly long periods of time while looking for rarer seafood finds. Their tale is told from the point of view of a granddaughter who wants to be like her grandmother, but is afraid of the ocean. It’s incredibly well written and SO fascinating to learn about the traditions and processes involved in this heritage. And you know anything about the ocean and “mermaids” is going to be right up my alley!
Welcome to my blog Tina!
Me: You now have several picture books out and a MG graphic novel in verse (wow!) due out in 2023. Can you tell us about your writing journey? What made you want to be a writer?
Tina: Being an elementary teacher led me to a love of children’s books, especially picture books. So, in 2008, while living in California, I researched how to write them. That led me to SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators organization) who hooked me up with a writing group. I learned so much from them and then branched out to reading writing blogs, took online picture book writing classes, and joined critique groups. I wrote a lot for the educational market while learning the craft of picture books. In 2016 I landed with my fabulous agent, Adria Goetz, and two years later, my first picture book, Rice from Heaven debuted. There are so many stories and facts that I feel should be shared with children, which is why I write.
I love that I can now share MY stories with my students. I guess in a way it’s come full circle. My desire to write picture books came from the classroom, and now I get to share books I’ve written with my students!
Me: This is your fourth picture book. What is the secret to your success? How do you find such amazing nuggets to turn into a picture book?
Tina: The Ocean Calls is a fiction picture book based on a real group of women divers. The back matter is pure nonfiction. Living overseas in South Korea for ten years provided those interesting, amazing nuggets for picture book ideas. Being immersed in a new culture and country definitely opened my eyes. The secret of my success belongs to many things—awesome critique groups, doing the research, and Proverbs 16:3 which says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.”
Me: What was it about the Haenyo mermaids that first grabbed you and drew you to write about them?
Tina: The ages of these elderly women who dove grabbed my attention. I used to think of elderly people as weak, but that’s not the case! My own father-in-law, in his late 70s, climbed a small mountain every weekend before COVID. They are wonderful examples of how to live life to the fullest. I also loved the fact that haenyeo live in Korea. I could actually visit them!
Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?
Tina: Yes, I researched on the Internet, reading articles, watching You Tubes of the haenyeo. When that wasn’t enough, I took my family to Jeju Island to see them. To watch them with my eyes, hear their breathing whistles, smell the catch, and see the landscape—all those details helped shape the story. I actually went to Jeju in 2018 and 2019. There’s also a haenyeo museum on the island that shows how the womens’ diving outfits and tools have changed over the years. My family also discovered haenyeo off the southern tip of South Korea in a city called Busan. Haenyeo from Jeju came to the mainland to teach them. I took photos, and with my husband’s translation, we talked to them.
Me: Jess X. Snow’s illustrations in this book are wonderful. Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Tina: Jess’s illustrations are breathtaking. I didn’t communicate directly; however, our wonderful publishing team at Kokila kept me informed every step of the way, showing me Jess’s progress, asking for my opinions. I guess I was surprised at the magical realism Jess brought into the story. She added another layer of surprises for readers. I love the scenery, sunsets, and especially the bright yellow field of canola. I got to experience that beauty on Jeju. Just gorgeous, and Jess’s illustration nailed it.
Me: That is beautiful! Any advice for other picture book writers?
Tina: Turn your vacations into stories! Be open to tidbits of knowledge around you. Sometimes you might have to fictionalize a topic to bring the story out. Be a part of critique groups. I’m in three, and each one brings something new to my stories.
Me: If you could be a Haenyo mermaid, what would your favorite thing be about being able to dive so deep for so long?
Tina: Fantastic question! Never had that asked of me before. I think I would love seeing the beauty of the ocean and its creatures, feeling free, diving into the underwater world.
I think my answer might be the same! Thank you again for visiting my blog Tina.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, you must track down a copy. It’s a unique twist on life near the ocean and the wonders that can be found within.