As a middle school English teacher by trade, I knew that buying books for our little girl was going to be one of my favorite activities. She already has quite the library!
Reading to kiddos at a young age (even in the womb) is so important for not only their brain development, but also for helping them understand the world they live in.
Growing up as a Korean adoptee in the 90s, there were hardly any children’s books with protagonists that looked like me or that celebrated Korean culture. The one book my mom was able to find was The Korean Cinderella by Shirley Climo. I loved looking at the bright illustrations by Ruth Heller and imagining myself in the wedding hanbok that Cinderella wears at the end of the story. However, it wasn’t lost on me that this was not really a Korean story; it was a beautiful adaptation of a popular western fairytale.
While still near and dear to my heart because it was my one and only Korean-representation book as a child, I am very glad that my daughter is able to have these additional titles on her bookshelf!
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners written by Joanna Ho & illustrated by Dung Ho:
It feels like I waited ages and ages for this incredible book to come out! From the very first minute I learned of its existence, I just knew that I had to buy it. Although not strictly Korean, it tells the story of a young girl who notices that her eyes are not like those of her blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmates. Instead of being big and wide, her eyes kiss at the corners. I love that the story is not only written in beautiful prose, but it focuses on the symbolism and heredity of having almond-shaped eyes. The girl is proud that her eyes are just like her mothers, her grandmothers, and her younger sisters, and the illustrations dance off the page with vivid images celebrating the beauty of the characters, Asian landscapes, and imagery.
Bee-bim Bop! written by Linda Sue Park & illustrated by Ho Baek Lee:
This playful book is titled after the popular Korean dish, Bibimbop (mix-mix rice). It is written in a bouncy and rhyming style and tells the process of making the dish in a sing-songy nursery-rhyme way. The little girl, who is the main character, begins the story by going to the grocery store with her mother and then goes on to observe and help make the dish with the rest of her family.
Every time I read this, I cannot wait to have my little one bouncing on my lap as I read, “hungry hungry hungry for some Bee-Bim-Bop!” The book even includes a recipe for the dish at the end!
No Kimchi For Me! written by Aram Kim:
Keeping in line with the Korean food books, No Kimchi For Me! fits right in!
Kimchi is a common Korean dish that consists of pickled and fermented cabbage or other vegetables, and it is known for having a strong smell and packing quite a punch to your taste buds depending upon the type. It can certainly be an acquired taste, but it is a staple in any Korean household. Using adorably illustrated cartoon cat characters, the book tells the story of Yoomi, who hates the stinky and spicy kimchi that her grandmother makes. She loves all of the other Korean banchan (side dishes), but she just cannot stand the kimchi! When her two older brothers see that she won’t eat it, they call her a baby and won’t play with her. Desperate to prove that she is a big girl, she tries putting kimchi on all sorts of things to make it more palatable. Unfortunately, she still cannot overcome the taste. Thankfully, her grandmother has an idea and quickly mixes up a kimchi pancake, which Yooni loves. Yooni is able to eat the pancake and is dubbed a “big girl.”
I love the playfulness of this book and the fact that it celebrates family and Korean cuisine. Like Bee-bim Bop!, No Kimchi for Me! also includes a recipe for kimchi pancakes at the end!
Where’s Halmoni? written by Julie Kim:
What I love about this book is its nod to Korean folktales. Illustrated in a comic book/graphic novel style, it tells the story of a brother and sister who go to their Halmoni’s (grandmother’s) house. When they cannot find her, they embark on an adventure and encounter several characters from Korean folktales such as the moon rabbit, tiger, dokkebi and fox. Each character helps or hinders the children on their search for Halmoni while “speaking” to them in Korean. These lines are written in hangul, but don’t fret! There are translations in the back of the book for those of us who are not well-versed in reading Korean.
This book is a beautiful blend of the real and the fanciful, and will transport any young child through a world of old and new.
The Name Jar written by Yangsook Choi:
This book should sit proudly on every classroom shelf. When I was teaching, so many of my students from other countries had adopted “American” names at school instead of using their own given names. Part of this was because they wanted to assimilate, and part of it was because at some point along the way, lower-school teachers asked them if they would like to choose a name that was “easier to pronounce.” This never sat well with me, and I’m so happy that The Name Jar addresses it head on.
On the first day at her new school, Unhei is picked on by kids riding the bus because her name is different. Embarrassed when she arrives at her classroom, she refrains from sharing her name with the class when her teacher asks her to introduce herself. Unhei merely says that she will share her name the following week. She mentions wanting an American name to her parents that evening, and they reassure her that she is different, but that her name is special, just like she is. Throughout the rest of the book, Unhei tries out different American names that are collected in a jar from her classmates. The kids put in names on slips of paper based on people they know, books, and movie characters. It isn’t until a little boy named Joey, sees Unhei writing her name with the stamp that her grandmother gave her, that someone in her class understands the beauty of Unhei’s Korean name. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a heartwarming one about taking pride in your heritage, your name, and embracing being different.
Books are so magical to adults and children alike, and I hope that these reads will sit proudly on your child’s bookshelf! Whether your children are Korean-American or not, these stories are sure to bring a smile and encourage some valuable conversations about identity, friendship, culture, and family.