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 to the United States 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.
The Korean American authors have a unique stories to tell. Their collective memories of the old country are still fresh, as is their immigrant experience. And if you use food to tell the story of a culture as I do, Korean cuisine is becoming the Next Big Thing. Or at least in New York City that seems to mark the beginning of every big food trend. 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 “dive.”
In any case, ride the trend and enjoy these 10 Korean American children’s books with your children.
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]
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]
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 Picnicby 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 Tripby 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 Goodbyesby 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.