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 that 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 small but clean “dives”.
In any case, ride the trend and enjoy these 10 Korean American children’s books with your children.
Best #OwnVoices Korean American Children’s Books
10. Sumi’s First Day of School Ever by 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 and up]
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 and up]
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 and up]
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 and up]
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 and up]
5. No Kimchi for Me by Aram Kim
Kimchi is too spicy for Yoomi so her brothers call her a baby and refuse to play with her. She wants to be able to eat kimchi like the big kids. With the help of her grandmother, she figures out a way. This Korean-themed picture book is cleverly told through cats to widen the audience. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
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 ages 9 and up]
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. [chapter book, for ages 7 and up]
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 and up]
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 and up]
Best #OwnVoices Korean American Books for Kids and Teens Honorable Mentions
Korean Celebrations: Festivals, Holidays and Traditions by Tino Cho, illustrated by Farida Zaman
Celebrate Korean holidays with this nonfiction picture book detailing a year of holidays and festivals including Seollal (New Year’s), Dana (end of planting season), Chilseok, and Children’s Day. Activities are included to make this into a celebratory event! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee
There’s a razor wire fence blocking the way to North Korean, but although the people in North and South Korean cannot go freely back and forth, the animals and fish can. It’s bittersweet for a grandson to accompany his grandfather to the border to look across at the DMZ, and long to be reunited with family there again. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Bear and Chicken by Jannie Ho
Bear finds Chicken frozen in the woods and revives Chicken at home. As he sets about boiling water for their lunch, Chicken panics and makes a run for it. It turns out that Bear is not making chicken soup, Bear is VEGETARIAN! This is a gentle and humorous story about overcome bias. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
I am (not) Scared! by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
A silly, fast paced read aloud about friends braving the amusement park together. (These two remind me of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie– but for a younger crowd.) A great text to encourage younger children to explore and identify their feelings. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Hazel and Twig: The Birthday Fortune by Brenna Burns Yu
Doljabi is a Korean tradition of celebrating a baby’s first birthday with a ceremony that predicts the future career path. Different symbolic objects are placed on a tray which the baby chooses from. A lute means a career as a musician. A length of yarn indicates a long life. There is also special food served for good luck. Twig ends up surprising everyone with an unexpected addition to the dojabi. This is another picture book that uses animals around a Korean-themed story. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Also by Aram Kim
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 and up]
Rice From Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans by Tina Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song
A girl and her father travel to the border of South Korea where an impenetrable mountain separates them from North Korea. Over this border, people are starving. Not all the children want to help, but the girl convinces them. They prepare 200 balloons with rice over the border and float them over the border. This is a true story of a rice balloon project that took place on May 2, 2016. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
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 and up]
More books by Yumi Heo
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 and up]
Another book by Soyung Pak
Peach Heaven by Yangsook Choi
The white peaches grown in Puchon are the best in all South Korea and a rare treat for a little girl who lives in the town. She dreams of a peach orchard where she can play and eat as much of the delicious fruit as she wishes. Then one day, after weeks of heavy downpours, the sky begins to rain peaches. Yangsook finds herself in peach heaven – until she remembers the farmers who have lost their harvest, and decides she must help them. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon
When curious little Penguin finds a lost pinecone in the snow, their friendship grows into something extraordinary! But Grandpa reminds Penguin that pinecones can’t live in the snow–they belong in the warm forest far away. Can Penguin help Pinecone get home? And can they stay friends, even if they’re miles apart? [picture book, ages 3 and up]
The Royal Bee by Frances and Ginger Park, illustrated by Christopher Zhong-Yuan Zhang
Over a century ago, only wealthy children were able to attend school and compete in the Royal Bee at the Governor’s palace. They would go on to become scholars and noblemen like their parents before them. Song-ho wanted to learn to read and write too, but his single mother could barely provide food for their table. He asked the teacher at the local school if he could attend, but was turned down. Undeterred, he listened and learned with an ear to the window of the school until one day, he was allowed inside. Song-ho would go on to compete at the Royal Bee and if he wins, it would change his life and his mother’s forever. This is the true story of the authors’ grandfather. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
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 and up]
My Freedom Trip: A Child’s Escape from North Korea by Frances and Ginger Park, illustrated by Debra Reid Jenkins
Soldiers have invaded Korea, and a young Korean girl and her family will try to make their escape. Because it’s so dangerous, only one person can go at a time with a guide. Her father goes first. Now, it’s her turn. At the final crossing point, there’s danger but also the promise of seeing her father. At the 38th parallel prior to the start of the Korean War, this is the true but bittersweet story of the authors’ mother. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
More books by Frances and Ginger Park
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!”
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).
More Books by Linda Sue Park
Wing and Claw: Beast of Stone by Linda Sue Park
Raffa Santana is a healer, not a fighter. As a gifted apothecary, he has amazing instincts for unleashing the potential of magical-seeming plants. But his skills have failed to free the animals that the heartless Chancellor captured and turned against the people of Obsidia—directly threatening Raffa’s friends and family.
Now Raffa and his ragtag group of allies are preparing to confront the Chancellor’s armies in battle. Great beasts, small animals, and humans alike will be joining the fight, and Raffa’s heart yearns to prevent injuries—and worse—on both sides of the battle. After all, the Chancellor’s creatures will be fighting against their will. Can Raffa’s instincts for apothecary arts bring a tolerable resolution to an impossibly unfair fight? [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Krista Kim-Bap by Angela Ahn
I discovered this book through Children’s Books Heal:
Angela Ahn has written a sweetly satisfying coming of age novel about an 11-year-old girl, who is a third-generation Korean-Canadian trying to fit in at school. The author creates a nice balance between cultural traditions, differences, family relationships, and friendships.
Krista is a feisty protagonist who seems comfortable with herself. Somewhat a tomboy, she prefers jeans and t-shirts and wears her hair in a ponytail. She spends a lot of time with her best friend Jason until she’s invited to a “Red Carpet” birthday party by a popular girl at school. This means Krista has to wear a dress and her older sister helps her modernize a traditional hanbok. Her outfit is a hit and the girls invite Krista to hang with them at lunch and after school. This cuts into time with Jason and she is torn between wanting to fit in, be true to herself, trust her instincts and be loyal to Jason.
There are many mouth-watering food scenes in this story and readers will learn about Korean dishes, like kimchi and kimbap, as Krista builds a relationship with her traditional grandmother. She asks her grandmother to teach her how to cook and be part her classroom family heritage project.
This story is perfect for diverse classroom settings. It is a fun, realistic and fast-paced novel that tackles interesting issues for a Korean-Canadian tween living in Vancouver. It’s a book worth reading! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
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.”
More books by Sook Nyul Choi
Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
I like a chapter book with a surprise twist. This starts off as a Korean American story of Chloe Cho, your average Tiger Cub who plays violin well, gets good grades and is an exemplary student. But then things change. Why? I can’t tell you. But this is a twist on the Model Minority Asian American stereotype, and it’s funny to boot. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Another book by Mike Jung:
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 and up]
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]
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
There is something not quite right about Harper’s new house with its cold spots and a general feeling of being watched. Her younger brother talks about the ghost in his room, but when he starts acting strangely, she gets help by way of her estranged grandmother, a mudong. It turns out that Harper has these same supernatural skills as her grandmother in communicating with spirits, and that ghosts might be related to the terrible accident that happened to her last year that wiped her memories away.
Her mother doesn’t believe in Korean superstitions which caused the rift with Harper’s grandmother in the first place. Will Harper be able to exorcise the ghosts in her house in time to save her brother? This is an action-packed thriller is perfect for kids who like the movie Ghostbusters! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
More books by Ellen Oh:
Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi
This YA book is clever but at times I wish it scaled back the cleverness to develop the characters. Still, halfway through the book, it balances out. It’s told through two points of view:
For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.
Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.
When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other. [young adult, age 14 and up]
More YA books by Jenny Han
Korean American Books for Kids and Teens Honorable Mentions
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by
Yukari Reads on Instagram gave me the heads up on this one.
Chef Roy Choi calls himself a “street cook.”
He wants outsiders, low-riders,
kids, teens, shufflers and skateboarders,
to have food cooked with care, with love,
with sohn maash.
“Sohn maash” is the flavors in our fingertips. It is the love and cooking talent that Korean mothers and grandmothers mix into their handmade foods. For Chef Roy Choi, food means love. It also means culture, not only of Korea where he was born, but the many cultures that make up the streets of Los Angeles, where he was raised. So remixing food from the streets, just like good music—and serving it up from a truck—is true to L.A. food culture. People smiled and talked as they waited in line. Won’t you join him as he makes good food smiles? [picture book biography, ages 4 and up]
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 is off-put 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]
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 out 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 folktale, a merchant rescues a tiger who then wants to repay the favor by eating him. Judges are called in to 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]
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]
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]
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]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.