Much of what we hear about North Korea on the news these days is dire and distressing.
While we may not be able to fully imagine daily life in this Communist dictatorship, we do know that more than half of the population lives in poverty without adequate nourishment.
Situations like these are especially difficult to explain to children, but the right stories, appealing to our common humanity, can have a positive impact. In Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (little bee books, 2018), we learn how a group of refugees and church volunteers in South Korea clandestinely delivered packets of rice via helium balloons to hungry North Koreans.
Debut picture book author Tina Cho (who currently lives in South Korea) based her story on an actual mission she herself volunteered for. This fascinating account of courage and compassion shows how ordinary people created their own miracle of hope for their starving counterparts.
As the story opens, Yoori, a young girl who lives in South Korea, travels with her father (Appa) to the border between the two countries. She explains that “Beyond that wall and across the sea live children just like me, except they do not have enough food to eat.”
Appa knew of this starvation first hand, since he grew up in North Korea before escaping to the South. Yoori feels helpless — she’s just “a little grain of rice,” but is excited about their secret plan to send special balloons carrying rice over the border.
As she and other church friends set up the launch under stormy skies, they are taunted by angry villagers, who accuse them of feeding the enemy. Yoori is momentarily saddened, but soon admonishes a mean boy with strong words:
We have to do this! We must help!
North Korean children have no rice.
They have no green fields like we do.
They eat grass and bark from trees.
The boy is shocked to hear this, apologizes, and promises to share some rice from his father’s field. In the drenching rain, everyone gathers in groups to inflate the balloons, tie on the rice bags, and push them into the air. What a sight!
The stars and moon hide under the rain clouds as two hundred balloons creep over the mountains like stealthy ninjas to fight hunger in the darkness of night.
And what a feeling! Yoori’s heart fills with hope, imagining how hungry children will find their “rice from heaven” in the morning. Yes, it will quell their hunger, but it’s also a reassuring sign that someone out there cares.
In her Author’s Note, Tina mentions helping North Korean refugees with this mission at a church in Seoul back in May 2016. For safety reasons, she couldn’t disclose any real names or exact whereabouts. Because of North Korean warnings about sending propaganda, they couldn’t include any written messages with the rice. It is estimated that the balloons stayed aloft for about 3 hours, traveling an average of 111.8 miles.
There’s a lot of other interesting back matter too: Facts on Korea, Politics of the Korean Peninsula, Facts on North Korea, a map of the Korean Peninsula, and suggestions for Further Reading. All provide good context for the story, and some of the facts will prompt readers to rethink the democratic freedoms and basic resources they’ve always taken for granted (even your hairstyle has to be approved in North Korea!).
Keum Jin Song effectively contrasts lush and verdant South Korea with the stark and barren North. Young readers will be impressed by how the volunteers handled the bags of rice and red helium tanks, how children and adults worked together in the pouring rain. Song’s vivid colors and rich textural details depict an idyllic South Korean largesse — beautiful green fields, rolling hills, flowers, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, atmospheric raindrops.
Tina’s lyrically told, unusual story will likely make a big impression on children because it is based on a real event. It’s the perfect way to begin a dialogue not only about the two Koreas, but the need for more kindness and compassion in our world, and the importance of taking positive action. Some may know about the God given manna from heaven. It is heartening to be reminded that human beings themselves are capable of small miracles, making food come down from the heavens like rejuvenating rain falls to earth.
Despite everything, as long as there are people in the world who care enough to help, there is always hope. I was especially pleased to read this story since like Yoori’s appa, my paternal grandfather left North Korea at a young age to seek a better life.
Rice from Heaven is a welcome addition to the growing number of diverse picture books, and a standout among the very few featuring Korean culture (offhand, I don’t know of any other picture book addressing the reclusive North Korean regime). Don’t miss this timely, relevant, inspiring book!
RICE FROM HEAVEN: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans
written by Tina Cho
illustrated by Keum Jin Song
published by little bee books, August 2018
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note as well as Political, Geographical, and Cultural Info about North Korea
♥️ Click here for the Rice from Heaven Teacher’s Guide
♥️ Read this interesting Kidlit 411 Spotlight on Tina Cho
*Interior spreads from Rice from Heaven, text copyright © 2018 Tina Cho, illustrations © 2018 Keum Jin Song, published by little bee books. All rights reserved.
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**Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.