Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Author Tina Cho Talks Mentor Texts

I met Tina Cho about five years ago through the 12 x 12 online picture book community. We share common ground as educators and picture book writers. As an active member of the ReFoReMo Community, using mentor texts has helped Tina learn a lot about great writing. We are pleased to reveal more about how that process supported her debut picture book, Rice from Heaven. Thanks for joining us today, Tina, and congratulations on your new release!

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of Rice from Heaven?
YES! My agent sent out an earlier draft of Rice from Heaven to a few editors, and they came back pretty much with the same comments—They loved the story line, but the writing needed work. So, my agent suggested that I make the story more dreamy and lyrical. Well, how does a writer do that? I’m not a poet, and so I took to storming through the Internet in search of mentor texts and ANYTHING about writing a lyrical picture book.
The first mentor text I used was Red Kite, Blue Kite by Ji-li Jiang, Disney Hyperion 2013. The first page reads:
"I love to fly kites. But not from the ground. My city is crowded, and the streets are skinny. Baba and I fly our kites from the tippy-top of our triangle roof. We are above but still under, neither here nor there. We are free, like the kites."
From this book, I learned about using comparison (metaphor & similes) and using an image theme throughout the book.

Next, I read many blog posts about lyrical texts, even one from ReFoReMo here.
Many of the blog posts about writing lyrical texts had one mentor text in common: JANE YOLEN’S OWL MOON. Can you believe in all my years of teaching and raising my own two children, I had never read this book?! And here I was in South Korea, and I didn’t have access to it. So, I checked You Tube. Yep, someone had a video reading of the book. You won’t believe what I did. I watched it so slowly, stopping every few words, and typed up the whole book!
I learned that it was written in free verse with illustrative, descriptive words, some repetition, with a refrain, lots of emotion, alliteration, simile, metaphor, and written in first person point of view.

So I rewrote my original draft to a more lyrical, dreamy draft. You can see some drastic differences:
From draft #11:  “Yoori loves rice. A bowl of rice with her egg at breakfast, rice and soup for lunch, and rice with vegetables and meat for supper. When her teacher said that some children had one meal a day or nothing, Yoori was shocked and sad.”
From draft #17 that sold: “Out of the city, across a bridge, to an island blanketed with rice fields, Appa and I ride. We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb. Beyond that wall and across the sea, live children just like me, except they do not have food to eat. North Korea is a gigantic empty rice bowl with a government that does nothing to help its people. Appa grew up there. Starving, he escaped down here to the south. I am a little grain of rice. How can I help?”
How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer? 
Since I’ve been an elementary teacher for many years, I’ve read many, many picture books. I’ve discovered what kinds I lean toward—funny, those with heart, and picture book biographies. So those are the kinds of stories I’m trying to write as well.
What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
For me, I utilize mentor texts the most when I’m stuck and need help as I described above with lyrical texts. Then I search for books in the genre and format I’m trying to write in. I read as many as I can and take notes on the author’s strategies and craft. I did this with nonfiction picture book biographies, and my latest, novels in verse.
Thank you so much for talking mentor texts with us today, Tina! As a school library media specialist, I appreciate Rice From Heaven's themes of human need, serving others, working together, and standing up for what is right. These are the qualities we strive to implement at my school and I appreciate how prayer is woven into the story's fabric. The frequent use of metaphor and simile deepen the point of view and compassion felt throughout the story.  Keum Jin Song's illustrations beautifully highlight emotion and teamwork, and the back matter provides relevant Korean history, creating a research springboard for students. 
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.