|An 83 year old haenyeo & me|
I scoured the Internet for everything I could read and watch about these fascinating mermaids of the sea. I wrote a first draft. This draft was pure nonfiction, and I thought Highlights Magazine would be interested. I was correct. They were interested, but they wanted more sensory details and quotes. Ugh. No sale.
I asked my husband how far Jeju was from where we lived, how much it would cost to fly there, etc… It turned out to be a cheap ticket & 30 minute flight. This would be our spring break vacation. I could research haenyeo. I
dragged took my family to every haenyeo spot around the island. I took photos, talked to them, and even visited the haenyeo museum. When I returned home, I wrote a new story, this one fictional with a haenyeo grandmother teaching her granddaughter the tradition. The story went through 9 drafts with my critique groups. My agent sold it to Kokila, a new imprint of Penguin Random House in 2018. Since then, we’ve flown back to Jeju for spring break 2019 and snapped more photos for the illustrator, Jess X. Snow. I also found haenyeo in Busan, a large city on the southern tip of Korea and was able to take photos of them.
My advice for turning your vacation into a star story:
1. Plan your vacations around your curiosities and places you are interested in.
2. Write down detailed sensory notes. Because I was able to watch the haenyeo firsthand, I could hear their special breathing called sumbisori which sounds like “hoowi,” when they exhale all their held-in breath. You will find that several times in my book. I took photos of the landscapes and shared them with the illustrator. Off the sandy shores were fields of bright yellow canola flowers and volcanic rocks. Jess did a beautiful job showing it! This is my favorite scene.
|my favorite spread|
3. Find a way to tell your story using your vacation as the backdrop. You can write nonfiction, or like me, fictionalize it but keep it based on something true.
4. Take lots and lots of photos and videos. You never know when an editor or illustrator will need them. I took photos of locals’ houses, and when invited inside a haneyo spot, I took more photos.
|Haenyeo spot in Busan, South Korea|
5. Talk to the locals. Get their perspective on things.
6. Find the uniqueness of your vacation story. My uniqueness is the haenyeo themselves. I couldn’t find any English children’s books about them.
7. Find a way to relate your story to today’s generation of kids. In my story the main character is afraid to swim & dive in deep water. She also learns something new from her grandmother. And many kids nowadays are trying new things since they have been home-bound.
8. Add layers of themes. My story showcases women and girls who are strong and courageous, attune to nature, with an intergenerational thread, the passing of tradition and culture, in a caring sisterhood of community.
9. Make sure it has a snazzy title that gives a hint about the story and snags an agent or editor. Add back matter if appropriate.
10. Send it to your critique group(s). I belong to 3. And they each chimed in with different perspectives and advice.
The Ocean Calls garnered 4 stars—from Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, & School Library Journal. It’s also a Junior Library Guild selection.
|Me in South Korea|
Bio: 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. On July 22nd, she and her family flew across the ocean to start a new life back in the states. Korea will always be part of their home.