BTS. Parasite. Squid Game. Korean pop culture is becoming bigger and bigger in western media, and romantic Korean young adult novels are no exception. While none is so well known at this time as Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (which features Lara Jean, a half-Korean, half-white American teen who gets involved in a fake dating scheme after some old love letters accidentally make it into the mail), Korean and Korean American characters are showing up on bookshelves and ereaders more frequently as interest in Korean culture among western consumers grows.
K-pop stories among Korean YA fiction seem to be the most numerous at the moment, as an easy cultural access point for many western readers who are otherwise unfamiliar with Korean and Korean American culture. And with the ubiquity of K-pop, it’s no wonder. As publishers take on more Korean YA, however, the subjects expand. With options becoming more numerous, it can be hard to know where to start. So long as you’re in for some romance, these books will get you well on your way.
Check out the list below to get started, from some of the most popular romantic Korean young adult novels to the lesser-known books you won’t want to miss.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
No longer in the mundane routine of high school, Korean American Penny can hardly wait to escape to Austin, Texas, where she plans to train as a writer. White café barista Sam, already in Austin, is also looking to get away from everything, but he’s tied down by responsibilities and circumstances. When the two meet, there’s not much more than fumbling awkwardness, but they soon find a comfortable rhythm via texting that leads to deep sharing and serving as each other’s go-to emotional support. With a keen eye for generation-specific details and a nuanced take on mental health, Mary H. K. Choi took off running with this debut, followed by Permanent Record (featuring a half-Korean, half-Pakistani American main character) and Yolk (Korean American main character).
Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo
With an approaching opportunity to make it on the American scene as a Korean American K-pop star, Lucky just needs to give a top-notch performance on The Tonight Show. But first, she has to take care of this nagging craving for a hamburger. As a household name, Lucky can’t very well just march out of her hotel without security to grab a bite, though. Her chance comes in the form of Jack, who, as a Korean American tabloid photographer, knows a thing or two about sneaking around. But as Jack and Lucky make their way around Hong Kong, they get to know each other better and better and just might be planting the seeds of a romance — so long as Jack can keep his line of work a secret. Check out this book from one of the queens of romantic Korean young adult novels.
XOXO by Axie Oh
Korean American Jenny is focused on studying cello at a prestigious arts academy when she spends one night of unbridled fun with a mysterious boy at her uncle’s karaoke bar in Los Angeles. But it’s just one night, and by the following day, Jenny has no way to find Jaewoo. When she finally makes it to South Korea, she’s surprised to find Jaewoo enrolled in the same school as she is. And not only that, but Jaewoo is actually massively famous as one of the members of a popular K-pop band. Consequently, he’s not allowed to date. Now, both Jenny and Jaewoo will have to contend with how much of their dreams they’re willing to give up to be with each other.
Shine by Jessica Jung
Rachel Kim is about to have a real shot at her ultimate dream: becoming a K-pop star. Moving from the U.S. to Korea is a big enough challenge, but now this Korean American teen will also have to face the hurdles and rules of being molded into a pop superstar. In order to keep a squeaky-clean image, this includes a no-dating rule. But Rachel can hardly resist the charming Jason Lee, who has already made it as part of K-pop canon. Now, Rachel must decide if she’s willing to risk everything she’s ever worked for to be with Jason, all while confronting sexism, paparazzi, mean girls, and other major complications of life as an aspiring K-pop star. Written by real-life member of popular K-pop band Girls’ Generation.
Made in Korea by Sarah Suk
She may just be in high school, but Valerie Kwon is already a girl boss. With a scheme to use the beauty business she runs with her cousin, Charlie, to raise enough to take her grandmother to Paris, there seems to be nothing standing in her way. Until Wes Jung shows up and starts selling K-pop beauty products and becomes V&C K-BEAUTY’s competition. In an entrepreneurial battle of sales, Valerie and Wes are going all out to outdo each other, but even in the midst of their contest, neither can deny their blooming chemistry.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon
Frank Li’s parents have expectations for him, one of the biggest being “date Korean.” So when Brit, who is white, catches his eye, Frank is at a loss. At least in being caught between traditional Korean culture and the modern America that surrounds him, Frank isn’t alone. With the help of Joy Song, another Korean American in the same predicament, Frank thinks they can make it work. A fake dating scheme will give them the space to go out with their real love interests — until Frank and Joy realize they might be falling for each other after all.
I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee
As a fat girl with dreams of joining the exclusive world of K-pop, Skye Shin has a slim chance at achieving her goal. But she’s not about to let that stop her. After signing up to compete to be the next K-pop star, Skye sails through the first audition. But soon, she’s facing more pressure than she anticipated. K-pop standards are ridiculously high and meeting them seems nearly impossible, especially when Skye is preoccupied with her cute competition, Henry.
K-pop Confidential by Stephan Lee
With perfect grades, a talent for playing music, and an under-the-radar personality that makes her a parents’ dream, Candace Park only has to keep her obsession with K-pop boy band SLK to herself to keep up her flawless image. When she takes the opportunity of a lifetime and finds herself invited to a prestigious K-pop training program held by SLK’s label, Candace can hardly say no, no matter how hard it is to convince her parents. But this is just the beginning. Soon, Candace is thrown into the wild world of K-pop boot camp and to complicate things even more, when a fellow trainee catches Candace’s eye, she can hardly act on any romantic feelings with the strict no dating rule in place. But who could resist?
The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park
Nate Jae-Woo Kim and Kate Anderson have little in common outside of both being employed by a zombie-themed escape room and having rhyming names. Nate is in desperate need of money and a way to get it without drawing the attention of his Korean family, who is too prideful to accept help. Kate is dealing with a controlling father who also happens to be a major pioneer in technology, but doesn’t have funds to make it on her own. Together, they team up to take on a survival challenge that could just solve their financial problems. And along the way, they may gain something even more valuable — a shot at love.
Anna K by Jenny Lee
High society has never seen so much drama as in Greenwich resident Anna K’s circle. Though mundane, her relationship with Alexander is perfect by perception (and her Korean American father approves), even if Anna’s brother is in the middle of a sexting scandal and her sister in the midst of a career-ending injury. Seeming perfection isn’t enough, though, when Anna meets Alexia. With a reputation of his own, it doesn’t seem likely that Anna and Alexia would be a good fit, but the pull is irresistible. The cost of a true romance might be too much, though, when Anna has every privilege to lose.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by David Yoo
After a life of misery and misfortune, Albert Kim has decided it’s best just to disengage with trying to enjoy the world. That is, until Mia walks into his life by way of his job at the Bern Inn. Mia’s perfect, and what’s more, she’s recently available, having ended a relationship with Ryan, who is everything Albert is not. After a few weeks working together, Albert and Mia are, miraculously, a thing. But then Ryan is diagnosed with cancer and not only is the whole town coming together to support him, but it seems like the perfect pity card to win back Mia. Now, Albert’s caught between maintaining his relationship and looking like the jerk of the century.
Once Upon a K-Prom by Kat Cho (May 2022)
With her whole life feeling like she’s just an extra in everyone else’s movies, Elena Soo isn’t all that interested in going to prom. Besides, there are more important things, like trying to save her local community center. But then the stuff of fan fiction happens to Elena: A K-pop star appears at her door to ask her to prom. Robbie is someone from Elena’s past but since he was last in her life, he’s become super famous. He’s different from how she remembers, but the old crush she once had for him is still flickering. Now, Elena must decide whether all that comes with dating a celebrity, from the online haters to the relentless paparazzi, is worth it.