Episode 92 – Interview with Tina Cho and Introducing Our Children to the World through Literature

In this episode we visit with Tina Cho about her books and how we can introduce the world to our kids through literature. We also talk about the need for more diversity in children’s literature even though more options are available today.

Our Guest: Tina Cho

Tina Cho is the author of four picture books with 2 more unannounced– 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 2024. After living in South Korea for ten years, Tina, her husband, and two teenagers reside in Iowa where Tina also teaches kindergarten. 

Books Discussed in This Episode:

Transcript with Links:

Terrie:

Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids. Today, we have a very special guest, Tina Cho, who is a children’s book writer, and she has some wonderful books to share with us, including ones about Korean culture. Tina Cho is the author of four picture books she’ll be talking about today. And two more unannounced books that hopefully we’ll be sharing fairly soon. Her lyrical, middle grade graphic novel, The Other Side of Tomorrow, debuts from Harper Alley in 2024. After living in South Korea for 10 years, Tina, her husband, and two teenagers, reside in Iowa, where Tina also teaches kindergarten. I’ve shared her book, My Breakfast with Jesus, a number of times on this podcast. I’m a fan of all her writing. And so I’m very happy to have her join us today. Tina, thank you for joining us today.

Tina:

Thank you for having me, Terrie.

Terrie:

I love your books, and I just want to start by you telling a little bit about each one. What inspired you to write them and, let our listeners just know about those books.

Tina:

My first picture book is called Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans illustrated by Keum Jin Song. And this story is about a real event that I helped with when I was living in Korea. One of my co-teachers was tutoring some North Korean refugees in English, and they were doing an event where they were going to send some rice up in balloons to North Korea. So I asked if I could tag along, and she said yes. So after that night I came home and wrote a story about it because I thought it was important for kids, especially here in America, to know about that.

Terrie:

That’s just such a cool story and such a neat mission that you guys did. Before you go onto your next story, can you just tell us about what brought this about? I mean, are they still doing this kind of mission work? Is it something–I know North Korea has gone through so much with people starving and really suffering. Is it still something that’s going on as far as this mission work?

Tina:

Perhaps secretly. The South Korean government passed a new law within the past couple years that they don’t want anyone to be sending balloons over the border because it’s been causing a lot of problems with Kim Jong Un’s regime. So now they have this law that states that they will go to jail. So they’re trying to find alternative ways to get the Bible and other things over the border.

Terrie:

And then your next book?

Tina:

My second picture book is called Korean Celebrations illustrated by Farida Zaman. And this one is a nonfiction picture book about all the holidays and celebrations in Korea. When we were living there, it seemed like they had a holiday every single month. And so I wanted to teach my children about it. So that’s how that book came about.

Tina:

And then my third picture book is My Breakfast with Jesus. And this was the idea of my agent, Adrian Getz. And she asked me if I would write a story based on John 21, where Jesus feeds his disciples a fish breakfast. And it’s cool because I had that verse written down in my notes already that this would make a good story. So I had been teaching at an international school in Korea, and so I would see what my students brought in their lunches from home, all diverse foods from their various cultures. So this was a really fun book to write, showing how children share kindness and love to their friends through food.

Terrie:

I love that book. I’ve recommended it several times on the podcast. It’s one of my favorites.

Tina:

Thank you so much.

Terrie:

And your last book?

Tina:

And then my last picture book is The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story illustrated by Jess Snow. This story is based on real diving women off the island of South Korea. And these women are called haenyeo. They dive without any breathing equipment. And most of them are 50 to 80 years of age. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years.

Terrie:

I remember seeing that somewhere when we were in Korea. They had a place where we could watch them dive, and it just was amazing to me. And we got to watch them, and I just kept feeling like I wanted, you know, it’s hard to hold your breath that long, right? It’s so amazing. I love to talk with writers about their heart. What brought you to the place of writing picture books? What is your, you know, passion and vision for when parents are reading your books to their children? What are your hopes?

Tina:

Back in 2008, I started writing for children and my love for wanting to write stemmed from the fact that I’m a teacher, I teach kindergarten. And so I always read picture books and I love picture books. That’s how that grew. And I want children to know, especially here in the United States, that there are children around the world who are in need and who live in hiding or in war or who are trying to escape even as we speak. So I want children to know that they have a Heavenly Father who loves and cares for them, and that they can turn to Him.

Terrie:

That’s wonderful. Even in the most dire situations. Yes. He’s always there. That’s wonderful. If you could talk to a new mom today, how would you encourage her about reading with her children?

Tina:

I would say if you have a baby, read to your baby every day, because they hear the rhythm and sounds of your language. Read a book to your child before bedtime. I always read with each of my kids before we did a devotion and prayed together. Even in middle school, I read with my son. Take your children to the library, even to their story times. Let them help choose books. Read books with diverse characters and different genres because you are opening up the world to your child.

Terrie:

Mm. I love that. That’s very true. Well, what were some of your favorite books when you were a child?

Tina:

Well, eons ago when I was a child, there were not diverse books. So the books that I loved had animal characters. I remember my mom reading Richard Scarry’s Animal Nursery Tales. And in that collection, one of my favorites was “The Teeny Tiny Woman.” And then I also have a picture book still called Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth by Lucy Bate, illustrated by Diane DeGroat. And I’ve written my name inside with my scribbling handwriting. That was one of my favorites too.

Terrie:

That’s fun. And when your kids were little, were we beginning to see diverse books at that point? What were your favorites to read to them?

Tina:

Not till they were more like in middle school. So when they were really young, my son was into trains, so he loved Freight Train by Donald Crews. And then my daughter loved Moo Baa Lalala by Sandra Boynton.

Terrie:

That’s such a cute book.

Tina:

Yeah. The baby board, yeah, but not until they were older, the diverse character started coming out.

Terrie:

It’s really wonderful think what’s happening in that part of children’s literature today. We are seeing a lot more, not enough, but a lot more diversity. And, and I love that your stories bring in the Christian part of that as well. Because a lot of it doesn’t have the Christian voice. So I think that’s wonderful.

Tina:

Thank you.

Terrie:

Okay. So I usually ask my guests if there’s a way that we can support you in your ministry and the work that you’re doing with books and especially with the Christian voice in picture books. How can we support you in what you’re doing and what God has called you to do?

Tina:

I think just mainly through prayer. Praying that God leads my stories to reach the hearts of kids and that He fills me with more wonderful stories and ideas to share because as writers, you know, we get writers block and can’t think of anything.

Terrie:

That’s a wonderful request. Yeah, that’s good. We need to pray that really seriously that God will inspire more writers to really share His story in unique ways and reach children. Our world just needs it so much today.

Tina:

Right.

Terrie:

So I love that. I love that request and anything else? So what is your hope as children and families read your books together and why is it important for them to read together?

Tina:

As children and families read my books, I want them to see the hand of God in my stories and to see diverse people in the stories I write. So like my picture book Rice from Heaven, I don’t come out and say the word God, but the event talks about something that the church people did. And it does say the word pray. And why is this important is because children and families need to learn about people who don’t look like them. Far too often, we stop and stare if we hear a different language or see someone of another culture. But if families are reading books with bipoc characters, seeing people who are different from them becomes natural. Currently in the publishing world, more books feature white characters or even animals or inanimate objects like trucks and mermaids than children of color. So slowly the industry is changing.

Terrie:

Yeah, that’s true. I just have to tell you a little side story. We were missionaries in Taiwan for 15 years. And my daughter, my oldest, before we went to Taiwan, she loved the Big Bird video where he’s in China, and we would go into the store, and if she saw anyone Asian, she’s like “Mom, Chinese people!” And I’m like, I didn’t want people thinking that we were prejudice. You know, I’m like, yes. And then when she found out she was not Chinese, she was so upset. She cried and cried and cried, and it was just so cute to see her–she just wanted to be Chinese. My husband grew up in Singapore, well, Venezuela and Singapore. And so culturally, our family has been a little more Chinese from the beginning. And then we worked in a Korean church and an Indonesian church most recently. So my kids have grown up around people with all kinds of languages. And our church in Taiwan was, well, we had about 13 different countries represented on any given Sunday in our services. So my kids have grown up with multicultural. They just feel really weird when they’re just around a bunch of blonde people, you know, blonde-headed people. So for us that just, you know, that’s just normal. And I love that we’re finally seeing some of that happen in the book market. I’m hoping it continues to grow. I’m sure it will continue to grow. There’s too many people saying we need to do this. So I love it. All right. Well thank you for your time. Thank you so much for joining us and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Tina:

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Terrie:

Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions as we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts. If you would like to get in touch with Tina, you can reach her on her website at tinamcho.com. You can find her books there and many resources that would be helpful to homeschoolers and teachers. Be sure to check out the show notes. Tina sent me an extra list of books that she would recommend for older kids and for parents, some books with more diversity in them, that you might be interested in checking out. So be sure to look in the show notes at terriehellardbrown.com. And if you would like to get in touch with me or join my mailing list, you can find me at terriehellardbrown.com. We would love to hear from you. You can comment on this podcast on my blog, or you can reach out to us through our websites. If you like “Books that Spark,” please consider leaving a review or a comment or downloading the podcast. These activities help to make this podcast more visible to other people, so other people can find out about it. And of course, a wonderful way for you to let people know we’re here is to share on social media, to tell your friends about it. We would appreciate it. And thank you.

Additional Books Recommended by Tina Cho:

Chapter books
Devo book I wrote for girls back in 2014: The Girl’s Guide to Manners (and all that good stuff)
Asian American Women in Science (15 Inspiring People You Should Know) by me (a work-for-hire project that just published)
Christian picture books
Love Is Kind by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Lison Chaperon, a Christian picture book based on 1 Corinthians 13
Bunny Finds Easter by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Ela Jarzabek, a Christian board book about the true meaning of Easter
Little Mole Finds Hope by Glenys Nellist, illustrated by Sally Garland, a picture book about looking at the positive side and being hopeful!
Bedtime with Mommy by Nancy I. Sanders, illustrated by Felia Hanakata, a Christian fiction board book showcasing various animals getting ready for bed.
Diverse picture books
Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, illustrated by Kristi Valiant, a picture book about a Filipina girl who helps cook a delicious family recipe.
Crowned with Glory by Dorena Williamson, illustrated by Shellene Rodney, a Christian picture book about a black girl who loves her hair and is excited about all she can be.
Dumplings for Lili by Melissa Iwai, a picture book about a girl and her grandma who make dumplings but need to borrow an ingredient, a book about various cultural dumplings.
Different Like Me by Xochitl Dixon, illustrated by Bonnie Lui, a Christian picture book about diversity.

Your Host:

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts discuss living as a disciple of Christ while parenting our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ and to use the nooks and crannies of our lives to disciple our children.

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be WONDERFUL” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

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