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Top 10: Korean American Children’s Books (ages 2-16)

Best Korean American Books for Kids

My husband is Korean and I joke that the Koreans are nicknamed “The Irish of Asia.”   Like the Irish, they have a strong culture despite a long history of invasion and occupation.  Like the Irish, they have a penchant for drinking and fighting.  And like the Irish, there is a vein of melancholy than runs through their DNA.   Or at least, this is my take on it.

When my 4th grader did a unit on immigration, they covered many nationalities (she did Japan), but not Korea.  I think it’s because the Korean immigration story is a fairly new one that began in earnest after the Korean War [think M.A.S.H.!].  And the Korean immigrants, more so than other Asian nationalities, have made it to the United States in pursuit of higher education, and thus, when they stayed, they were able to land squarely in the middle  class.

Korean-American authors have unique stories to tell.  Their collective memories of the old country are still fresh, as are their immigrant experience.  And if you use food to tell the story of a culture as I do, Korean cuisine is the Next Big Thing.  Or at least in New York City.  My husband and I found it amusing when we visited NYC a few years ago that the big trend was upscale, fancy Korean restaurants.  We lived near Korea Town in Los Angeles for many years so we equate good Korean food with smal but clean “dive”.

In any case, ride the trend and enjoy these 10 Korean American children’s books with your children.


Honorable Mentions

I found this chapter book at Stacking Books who says, “A beautiful Korean historical fiction! A tale of daughter’s love, her determination to reunite with her mother. Art, culture, history and a beautifully illustrated tale!”

Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth by Joan Schoettler

Ji-su’s mother has been chosen by the Korean king to be a seamstress at the palace and sew bojagi, or wrapping cloths, for the royal household. It is a great honor, but to Ji-su it means saying good-bye to her mother. The only way for them to be reunited, Ji-su realizes, is for her to become a seamstress just as talented and be chosen to serve the king. Through the changing seasons, Ji-su sews, learning the craft from her great-aunt and practicing her stitches tirelessly. One day, she finally has the chance to show her work to the palace Sanguiwon master, who has the power to bring her to her mother or to dash her hopes of being reunited. Is her sewing fine enough for the king?

Melissa Hahn says, “I would add to it Cooper’s Lesson by Sun Yung Shin. I was impressed by the way that it explored the mixed feelings that bicultural Korean Americans have toward the Korean language (in this case, not being able to speak it and feeling ashamed).

Book Mentors had two great suggestions, “I actually do have two good recommendations: first,Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream is one of my favorite Asian-American books in general. The story is about a Korean-American 4th grader who wants to be voted Little Miss Apple Pie in her town’s harvest festival…but must overcome doubt that she’s “American” enough.

Another book, Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park, is a middle-grade novel about a girl who raises silkworms for a 4-H-type project. Both books discuss Korean culture and growing up Asian-American in a really organic way–not at all heavy-handed.”

Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han

Clara Lee is the new Clementine and Han’s new book has all the charm of Clementine with a subtle Korean American twist. She lives in a suburban neighborhood where there are not a lot of Asians. A gentle but central theme here is who is as American as apple pie? And are Asians in America “American?”
“Wasn’t my family as American as apple pie too? Grandpa came from Korea, but both my mom and dad were born in America, just like me. I deserved to have a shot at Little Miss Apple Pie as much as  Dionne did. Didn’t I?”  [easy chapter book, ages 6-10]

Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth by Joan Schoettler

Sonia from Kite Readers says, ” It just recently won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (you can go to Shens Books Blog to find our more). This book is a beautiful story about a young girl who must learn to become a talented seamstress in order to be reunited with her mother in the King’s court! You can learn more about the book at KiteReaders’ website.”

Never Trust a Tiger: A Story from Korea retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson

Koreans have been subjugated for centuries by invaders so it’s not surprising that they are jaded when it comes to doing good deeds. In this folk tale, a merchant rescues a tiger who then wants to repay the favor by eating him. Judges are called into assist this disagreement. The ox thinks that life is just not fair. The pine tree has had only good karma so objects to a bad deed following a good deed. The hare is the final arbitrator and cleverly comes up with a plan that makes it all square. The message from this book, then is a cautionary tale to beware of bad guys. I like that the ending is what you’d expect. [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak

Juno is a little boy who receives a letter from his grandmother in Korea. He can’t read Korean and his parents are busy with the usual household chores.  Despite the language barrier, he is able to understand the letter though his mother eventually translates it for him. The letter is special as are the enclosures — a dried flower and a photo of his grandmother and her new cat. And Juno decides to write a letter back. One that will also transcend their language barrier. He makes several drawings and encloses a very large leaf. And so they write each other back and forth … at least until she comes to visit! [picture book, ages 4-9]

The Korean Frogs: A Korean Folktale Retold by Yumi Heo

This is a cute picture book that tells the story of naughty frogs who don’t listen to their mother. A fun and funny story to remind the kiddos to listen to mom! [picture book, ages 3-8]

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

When Unhei moves from Korea to the United States, she is a little embarrassed by her name so she tells her new classmates that she doesn’t have one.  They all help to choose a new one for her by putting choices into a jar but in the end, Unhei decides that her Korean name is just perfect.  This is the perfect book for anyone with an “ethic first or middle name” that they are a little embarrassed about.  [picture book, ages 5-9]

F is for Fabuloso by Marie G. Lee

I happened upon this Korea-American author for grades 4-6th and wanted to share it because it’s a fabuloso book!  It’s unclear why her book didn’t make a bigger splash when it came out about 10 years ago.  She’s a really vibrant voice for Asian American children’s literature so I wanted to let you know about her.  The author is a second generation Korean American and grew up in Minnesota much like her lead character, Jin-Ha, in F is for Fabuloso.   It’s a tender and gentle story about straddling two worlds especially as the go-between for her mother who is shy to speak English.  [chapter book, ages 8-12]

If It Hadn’t Been for Yoon Jun is another book, also by Maria G. Lee,  that I was trying to locate at the library which I wasn’t able to find yet, but I suspect it is also very good.  I will find it and update you! [chapter book, ages 8-12]

Count Your Way through Korea by Jim Haskins, illustrated by Dennis Hockerman

This seems like a basic counting book on the outside, but it’s actually packed with interesting factoids about Korean culture.  AND the text is really advanced; it’s actually too hard for a toddler or preschooler learning how to count to 10.  I’d just this to teach older kids, say in elementary school or learning a Korean version of Karate, how to count to 1o in Korean. [picture book, ages 6-9]

Count Your Way through Korea, learn korean numbers, pragmatic mom

The Korean Cinderella by Shirley Climo, illustrated by Ruth Heller

This is the Korean version of Cinderella set in olden-times Korea.  [folk tale picture book, ages 4-8]

Korean Cinderella story set in olden times, pragmatic mom, pragmaticmom.com

Chi-Hoon, A Korean Girl by Patricia McMahon with photographs by Michael F. O’Brien

This is a day-in-the-life glimpse of an elementary school aged girl, Chi-Hoon.  My oldest found it fascinating to learn about life in modern day Korea.  The reading level is perfect for grades 3-5.  [non-fiction, ages 8-12]

Chi-Hoon, life in modern day Korea pragmaticmom.com

10. Sumi’s First Day of School Everby Soyung Pak.

Sumi doesn’t speak English and today is her very first day of school ever.  Will it go well?  [picture book for ages 2-7]

9. Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park.

A light-hearted rhyming picture book on a favorite Korean national dish.  It’s popular in restaurants but it evolved as a way to use up all the leftovers.  In this book, a family spends all day preparing this little girl’s favorite meal.  With a recipe at the end!  [picture book for ages 2-5]

8. Where on Earth is My Bagel? by Frances and Ginger Park.

A whimsical story about a little Korean boy who dreams of a New York bagel and, with the help of his friends, is able to make one.  [picture book for ages 3-7]

7. Halmoni and the Picnic by Sook Nyul Choi.

An advanced picture book about a girl and her Korean grandmother and how they both learn to bridge the cultural gap with food.   [picture book for ages 5-8]

6. Yunmi and Halmoni’s Trip by Sook Nyul Choi.

Halmoni takes her granddaughter on a trip back to Korea to meet the family, but Yunmi worries that her grandmother might not want to come back.  [picture book for ages 5-8]

5. Kimchi and Calamari by Rose Kent.

14-year-old Joseph Caldararo has a loving family and is a well-adjusted popular kid at school.  But when his social studies teacher assigns a paper on Your Cultural heritage, his world gets turned upside down.  He knows he’s adopted from Korea when he was just an infant and it’s never really bothered him before, but now it does.  It doesn’t help that the new dry cleaners are taken over by a Korean family who are off-out by his adoption.  And it makes his parents upset when he wants to learn more about his own cultural heritage.  His best friend assists him in conducting an internet search to try to trace his parents but that’s a long shot at best!  But what to write for this paper?  His confusion about who he is leads him down a path of deceit and now everything is a mess.  On top of this, he’s trying to get a date for the school dance.  Whoever said that middle school is tough is right!  [chapter book, ages 9-12]

4. The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi.

A haunting but ultimately uplifting story of author Sook Nyul Choi’s experience living in war-torn North Korea.  [chapter book for middle schoolers]

3. The Kite Fighters by Linda Sue Park.

Set in 15th century Korea, Korea’s Golden Age, two brothers — one  skilled in kite making and the other skilled in  kite flying — combine their skills to compete in a kite flying contest on behalf of the king.  [ages 7-12]

2. Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park.

A glimpse into the lives of the  nobility during the Golden Age of Korea and the restrictions placed on women.  [chapter book for ages 8-12]

1. A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.

Newbery award winning book about a famous potter during the Golden Age of Korea.  [chapter book for ages 8-12]

To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

18 Comments

  1. Sarah Ahn

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have forwarded this awesome top 10 to all of my family and Korean friends. As a 1st generation Korean mom it’s hard to impart what it means to be Korean to my half Korean kids but these books sure do help. My kids love Bee-Bim Bop and I love the recipe for yummy bibambap at the end of the book!

  2. James Gardner

    We’ve read many of these books and like your summaries. Please review some Japanese American children’s books next. Post WW2 and the experience of internment, Japanese Americans had special challenges that can make for interesting stories. There are many poignant ones about fitting in, finding identity, etc.

    • I just posted the Chinese American book list and will do Japanese American soon. I am also thinking of African American and Latino American but will have to dig for that and enlist the help of some mom friends. I also want to do Top 10 Books to Teach Kids Compassion…I have a stack of recommendations at home from the library that I need to read.

    • I find the subject of internment especially poignant because my mother was relocated during WWII. I will work on that list and touch on that subject but will cover other aspects as well.

    • Will do! Thanks for your suggestions. It helps me plan my blog posts!

  3. Kim

    I’m loving this list and I want to remember to refer back to it as my son gets older (he’s 3). He has loved Bee-Bim-Bap! since he was only 1! I’m a Korean adoptee so we try to learn a little about Korea and these sound like great picks.

    • To Kim,
      Thank you so much! When your son gets older, try Kimchi and Calamari. I love author Rose Kent (who also adopted a Korean boy baby) and this is a story about finding one’s identity when your adopted family is Italian. It’s a wonderful and moving story with a happy ending. My favorite kind!

  4. This is a fantastic list! Have you also looked at “Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth” by Joan Schoettler? It just recently won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (you can go to Shens Books Blog to find our more). This book is a beautiful story about a young girl who must learn to become a talented seamstress in order to be reunited with her mother in the King’s court! You can learn more about the book at KiteReaders’ website.
    Sonia recently posted…The Great Voyages of Zheng HeMy Profile

  5. Wonderful list, Mia! Thanks for sharing this one. Parents and teachers need to remember that one of the best ways for kids to gain a wider perspective on the world and other cultures is though the books they read. :)
    Vivian Kirkfield recently posted…Parenting Tip – How To Teach Problem SolvingMy Profile

  6. Melissa Hahn

    Thank you for this list! I have been building my library in anticipation of one day having children, as I see literature as one vehicle for helping them them navigate/validate their many identities (my husband is half Korean).

    I would add to it “Cooper’s Lesson” by Sun Yung Shin. I was impressed by the way that it explored the mixed feelings that bicultural Korean Americans have toward the Korean language (in this case, not being able to speak it and feeling ashamed).

  7. I love this list and your others as well! I’d love it if you’d join our Booknificent Thursday link-up community at Mommynificent.com and come each week (or as often as you can!) to share this kind of post! Hope to see you there soon!
    Tina
    Tina at Mommynificent recently posted…Booknificent Thursday Link Up Party #17My Profile

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