Whether you’re Korean yourself, riding the Hallyu, or interested in exposing your children to different languages and cultures, there’s no denying that it’s become a phenomenon over the past decade or so. As a Korean American adoptee growing up in the ’90s, I remember reading a few picture books where I could see myself represented, but there weren’t nearly enough. This list of Korean children’s books makes me so happy and excited to see not only representation but exploration of Korean culture for young curious minds.
Korean Children’s Books About Culture + Folklore
The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story by Tina Cho and Jess X. Snow
The haenyeo are female divers from Jeju and this vibrant book tells the story of Dayeon and her haenyeo grandmother who she idolizes. She dreams of possibly becoming a haenyeo as well, but a scary memory from her past keeps her out of the water. But together with her halmoni (grandmother in Korean), she learns how to face her fears. The illustrations are absolutely stunning and it’s a great representation of STEM for young girls, as well!
No Kimchi For Me! By Aram Kima
Yoomi is the youngest in her family and she loves when her grandmother comes over and teaches her and her brothers about Korean culture and, of course, cooks them yummy Korean food. She likes everything except kimchi, a staple in many Korean meals. Yoomi tries so hard to learn to like it, but grandma has a delicious idea to help her enjoy the spicy dish.
The Turtle Ship by Helena Ku Rhee and Colleen Kong-Savage
This book is a fictionalized account of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a renowned military hero, and his Turtle Ship. We go back to Sun-sin’s childhood and meet his pet turtle, Gobugi, and watch him pursue his dreams of sailing around the world. Sun-sin enters a contest searching for the best new battleship design for the chance to sail the ocean with the royal navy.
Where’s Halmoni? By Julie Kim
Told through a format similar to graphic novels, this picture book follows two siblings as they search for their missing grandmother. While they search, they find themselves transported to a new world inspired by Korean folktales and they learn more about their Korean background.
Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans by Tina M. Cho and Keum Jin Song
This book is a true story of a young girl in South Korea who helped deliver rice via balloons to North Korea. Yoori has heard stories from her Appa (father) about his childhood growing up in North Korea, where he often struggled to find food. Determined to help the people of North Korea, Yoori helps organize her community to send much-needed rice across the border.
The Korean Cinderella by Shirley Climo and Ruth Heller
I absolutely loved this book as a kid. As expected, this book is a retelling of Cinderella including Korean customs, language, and culture. Pear Blossom is our Cinderella, who is heartbroken when her mother dies and her father remarries. Her new stepmother is envious of Pear Blossom’s beauty and relegates her to performing endless chores.
Books With Korean Children
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Unhei is the new kid at school and she is anxious about her teachers being able to pronounce her name. When she introduces herself on the first day, she tells her classmates she will select an English name and tell them next week. She has her classmates put suggestions in a jar and she prepares to choose — but on the day of her name-choosing, the jar disappears. A new friend encourages Unhei to choose her own Korean name and tell everyone how to pronounce it.
Bee-Bim Bop! By Linda Sue Park and Ho Boek Lee
Told in simple rhymes, this book walks through the process of making bibimbap (a DELISH Korean mixed rice dish with meat and veggies) through the eyes of a hungry girl cooking with her mother. Bibimbap takes a bit to assemble and make and the little girl is very, very hungry!
Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim
We hear a lot of stories about kids bringing their lunches to school with traditional Korean dishes and chopsticks and being made fun of because it’s different. I love how this book switches that on its head. When Danbi starts at a new school, her classmates are fascinated by her special lunch and as she shares with her new friends, she starts a parade. So cute.
Dear Juno by Soyung Pak and Susan Kathleen Hartung
This book shows the adorable relationship between a young boy and his grandmother. There’s a language barrier — she writes in Korean, so he draws pictures — but the letters they exchange are no less special. When the grandmother realizes Juno wants her to come visit, she sends an extra special letter to let him know she’s coming.
What Will You Be, Sara Mee? By Kate Aver Avraham and Anne Sibley O’Brien
Sara Mee is turning one, which means her family and friends are gathering for her toljabee. In Korean culture, tol is a child’s first birthday where an important ceremony takes place. A variety of objects are placed on a table — all with different meanings for the child’s future — and the ones they choose are supposed to be predictive of their upcoming years. This book depicts Sara Mee’s toljabee ceremony and is a great way to introduce children to different cultures and traditions.
Korean American Adoptees
Goyangi Means Cat by Christine McDonnell, Steve Johnson, and Lou Fancher
As an adoptee myself, I’d be remiss to not include a book specifically for young adoptee children. When Soo Min is adopted by an American family, she has a hard time adjusting to her new home. Soo Min immediately connects with her family’s cat, Goyangi, and she’s heartbroken when he runs away. Soo Min and her mother begin a search for Goyangi and begin to bond during the process.
If you’re interested in children’s books originally published in Korean, there is a great list here, although obtaining these might be difficult.
And here’s an amazing list of adult Korean fiction in translation, as well!