The most recommended books about Koreans

Who picked these books? Meet our 20 experts.

20 authors created a book list connected to Koreans, and here are their favorite Korean books.
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Book cover of If I Had Your Face

Elise Hu Author Of Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital

From my list on challenging beauty standards and diet culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

My interest and curiosity in this topic primarily came from life experience: not fitting in as a gangly Asian girl growing up in white suburbs and picked on for how I looked, working as a teen model in the late 1990s and early aughts, becoming a mother to three girls while opening up NPR’s first-ever bureau and living in Seoul, South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world. Ever since graduating from The University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism, I’ve been a professional journalist. Most of my career has been as an NPR correspondent, but I’ve also worked as a reporter for VICE and appeared in The Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, and numerous other publications.

Elise's book list on challenging beauty standards and diet culture

Elise Hu Why did Elise love this book?

If you are looking for a character-driven novel that takes you to modern Seoul and gets into the personal and social motivations for the cosmetic procedures that go unquestioned in South Korea, look no further than Frances Cha’s debut.

It’s an engrossing read with layered characters who are easy to root for, and a text that goes a long way to help us understand how the motivations for upgrading ourselves are not limited to just those on the other side of the Pacific.

By Frances Cha,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If I Had Your Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A riveting debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossible standards of beauty, after-hours room salons catering to wealthy men, ruthless social hierarchies, and K-pop mania
 
“Powerful and provocative . . . a novel about female strength, spirit, resilience—and the solace that friendship can sometimes provide.”—The Washington Post

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time • NPR • Esquire • Bustle • BBC • New York Post • InStyle 

Kyuri is an achingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a Seoul “room salon,”…


Book cover of The Grass Roof

Eugenia Kim Author Of The Kinship of Secrets

From my list on historical fiction set in Korea.

Why am I passionate about this?

Eugenia Kim’s debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, won the 2009 Borders Original Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a critic’s pick by the Washington Post. For that novel, which is set during the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea, 1910-1945, and for her second novel (below), whose first half is set during the Korean War, 1950-1953, she read more than 500 books and twice traveled to Korea in order to accurately depict these little-known slices of history.

Eugenia's book list on historical fiction set in Korea

Eugenia Kim Why did Eugenia love this book?

This is an autobiographical novel of a scholar’s son’s coming of age in a small village during the Japanese occupation, though that is felt with some distance. Kang focuses on classical education in that era, traditions for holidays and ceremonies, schooling, friends, family dynamic, a detailed account of the March First Independence Movement Day, and finally emigration to America as a young man. It is a little-known prequel to Kang's book, East Goes West, a seminal work in Korean American literature, which covers his immigration to New York in the 1920s through the war years.

By Younghill Kang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Grass Roof as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English, German (translation)


Book cover of Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir

Jiordan Castle Author Of Disappearing Act: A True Story

From my list on resilience for young adults and adults.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always been interested in stories about becoming. Whether it’s a coming-of-age story, a story about overcoming adversity, or a story about discovery or recovery, I find that the best books about becoming also tend to be books about resilience. For me, the lure of a book is often more about its themes and perspective than it is about where it’s categorized and shelved. Having written a memoir in verse for an upper young adult reading group, this is especially true of my experience as an author. Each of the books on this list has something profound and singular to offer young adult readers and adult readers alike.

Jiordan's book list on resilience for young adults and adults

Jiordan Castle Why did Jiordan love this book?

If you like graphic novels, you’ll love this book. If you like odds-defying coming-of-age stories, you’ll love this book. (You’ll love this book!)

Robin Ha generously captures and shares her own turbulent teen years in this visually and emotionally stunning graphic memoir. An abrupt move from Seoul, Korea to Huntsville, Alabama changed everything for Ha overnight, forcing her to grapple with racist schoolmates, language barriers, and isolation, but also finding her way forward through drawing.

It’s a powerful meditation on identity, as well as an incredibly unique style of memoir.

By Robin Ha,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Almost American Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Harvey Award Nominee, Best Children or Young Adult Book 

A powerful and moving teen graphic novel memoir about immigration, belonging, and how arts can save a life—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo. 

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated.

Overnight,…


Book cover of The Guest

Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton Author Of Mina

From my list on Hell Chosŏn.

Why are we passionate about this?

A couple who have been claimed by Korea—Bruce as a US Peace Corps volunteer there and Ju-Chan as a native Korean and an English teacher—and its culture, society, history, and especially literary heritage. We have been translating modern Korean fiction into English since 1980. Bruce was fated to become involved with Korean literature by virtue of being born on October 9, the day in 1446 when Great King Sejong promulgated (officially announced) the creation of the Korean alphabet, hangŭl, to the people of Korea.

Bruce's book list on Hell Chosŏn

Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton Why did Bruce love this book?

In The Guest we hear the voices of the victims of a massacre that took place shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, a massacre blamed on the UN (mostly American) military but actually perpetrated by Koreans on Koreans. To allow us access to the stories of these victims the author uses a ritual in which a practitioner of native Korean spirituality channels the voices of those who have died an unnatural or premature death and who continue to wander in the ether until they are able to communicate their stories to those of us still living. Only then can they find closure and settle in the hereafter.

By Hwang Sok-yong, Kyung-Ja Chun (translator), Maya West (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Guest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation's search for reconciliation.
During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories…


Book cover of Bee-Bim Bop!

Melanie Heuiser Hill Author Of Around the Table That Grandad Built

From my list on sharing food.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a children’s author who loves to eat and bake and cook and gather with others around a table. My writing somehow always has details about people coming together around favorite foods and drinks, enjoying the company of family and friends. Is it any wonder these are the sorts of books I love to read, as well?

Melanie's book list on sharing food

Melanie Heuiser Hill Why did Melanie love this book?

This rollicking, rhyming picturebook is so much fun to read. A little girl and her mother are making the traditional Korean dish of bee-bim bop. The book starts in the grocery store and ends at a table with three generations gathered to eat. It’s basically a recipe—bee-bim bop can actually be made by reading it, and it is delicious. This is always a crowd-pleaser during storytime. Kids can join in on the refrain of bee-bim bop! The energy level escalates as you go!

By Linda Sue Park, Ho Baek Lee (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bee-Bim Bop! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Korean American girl celebrates food and family in this cheerful book about cooking a special meal by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park.

In bouncy rhyming text, an excited and hungry child tells about helping her mother make bee-bim bop: shopping, preparing ingredients, setting the table, and finally sitting down with her family to enjoy a favorite meal.

The energy and enthusiasm of the young narrator are conveyed in the whimsical illustrations, which bring details from the artist’s childhood in Korea to his depiction of a modern Korean American family.


Book cover of The Surrendered

Eugenia Kim Author Of The Kinship of Secrets

From my list on historical fiction set in Korea.

Why am I passionate about this?

Eugenia Kim’s debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, won the 2009 Borders Original Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a critic’s pick by the Washington Post. For that novel, which is set during the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea, 1910-1945, and for her second novel (below), whose first half is set during the Korean War, 1950-1953, she read more than 500 books and twice traveled to Korea in order to accurately depict these little-known slices of history.

Eugenia's book list on historical fiction set in Korea

Eugenia Kim Why did Eugenia love this book?

What happens after you survive the atrocities and randomness of war? Chang-rae Lee examines the deep intricacies of this question and its ramifications, portraying three survivors (Korean War, Sino-Japan War) whose lives mesh at an orphanage somewhere in South Korea after liberation. From that common crossroad, the lives of Sylvie, a missionary wife, Hector, a G.I., and June, a Korean orphan, are forever intertwined, shadowed by pervasive doom pitted against the human need to endure. Lee’s intense focus on physicality seems to reflect the characters’ bodily will to continue life, even as their hearts are blackened by tragedy. It is an intense and absorbing read, frightening for what we do to ourselves and how, despite all the darkness and violence we create in the name of war, some continue to persist in a semblance of life, and helplessly pass along the damage of war to those they touch as they…

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Surrendered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

June Han has forged a life thousands of miles from her birthplace: she has built a business in New York, survived a husband, borne a child. But her past holds more secrets than she has ever been able to tell, and thirty years after her escape from war-ravaged Korea, the time has come for her to confront them.

Hector Brennan, fighter, drinker and 'failure grand and total', is the man who long ago saved June's life. And between them lies the story of the beautiful, damaged Sylvie Tanner, whose elusive love they both once sought. On a journey that takes…


Book cover of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann Author Of In Defense of Universal Human Rights

From my list on readable stories on human rights.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a scholar of international human rights and comparative genocide studies. My father was a refugee from the Holocaust. So I was always interested in genocide, but I did not want to be another Holocaust scholar. Instead, I introduced one of the first university courses in Canada on comparative genocide studies. From a very young age, I was also very interested in social justice: I was seven when Emmett Till was murdered in the US. So when I became a professor, I decided to specialize in international human rights. I read a lot of “world literature” fiction that helps me to empathize with people in places I’ve never been.

Rhoda's book list on readable stories on human rights

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann Why did Rhoda love this book?

This was the first book I read on North Korea.

North Korea is a combination of the Soviet Gulag and Auschwitz. Under the reign of the three Kims (grandfather, father, and son), North Koreans have endured malnourishment and starvation since the 1990s. Most of this would been avoidable if the government hadn’t had ridiculous economic policies forbidding private enterprise, and also imprisoned anyone who criticized the Kims’ rule. 

Remick is a journalist who introduces North Korea to a general audience by interviewing six refugees.  I “assigned” this book to one of my ladies’ book clubs and they found it very interesting and easy to read.

By Barbara Demick,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Nothing to Envy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening account of life inside North Korea—a closed world of increasing global importance—hailed as a “tour de force of meticulous reporting” (The New York Review of Books)
 
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST

In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un), and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
 
Demick brings to life…


Book cover of Bamboo and Blood

Kenneth Dekleva Author Of The Negotiator's Cross

From my list on espionage/spy thrillers that tell very human stories.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a psychiatrist and former American diplomat, who served overseas in Europe, Russia, Mexico, and India. My regional diplomatic travels took me to over 70 countries over several decades. I have always loved spy thrillers because they highlight the intrigue, drama, psychology, and history of different cultures, which brings out the humanity, courage, and tragedy of the characters therein. Good spy thrillers also capture a sense of place, culture, and history, and possess an authenticity that gives them a broader, universal appeal.

Kenneth's book list on espionage/spy thrillers that tell very human stories

Kenneth Dekleva Why did Kenneth love this book?

A wonderful book! James Church is former intelligence officer, and in Bamboo and Blood, he weaves a tale of murder and missile deals, set in the context of North Korea's famine. 

With its evocation of cold, snow, and death, Inspector O encounters a giggling Israeli agent; a solitary, lonely North Korean general; a former colleague from a failed mission; a bevy of North Korean diplomats; and a Swiss counterintelligence officer. The tale ends with Inspector O's caveat to the Israeli agent: "Belief is easy. It's doubting that causes difficulties." 

Inspector O survives the famine, and another winter, as does North Korea. This novel by Church, like his debut spy thriller/mystery, A Corpse in the Koryo: An Inspector O Novel, is one to be savored.

By James Church,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bamboo and Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's the late 1990s, and a younger Inspector is working in Pyongyang as the North's nuclear missile program - and international relations are heating up. In Pakistan, the wife of a North Korean diplomat is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Inspector is assigned to the investigation with strict instructions to stay away from anything to do with the missile program. That proves impossible, though, when realizes the woman's death provides him an entry point into a larger conspiracy,Once again, James Church opens a window onto a society where nothing is quite as it seems. The story serves as the reader's…


Book cover of The Foreign Student

Don Lee Author Of The Partition

From my list on by now-established Korean American authors.

Why am I passionate about this?

A Korean American author myself, I published my first book in 2001, and in the ensuing years I’ve been heartened by the number of Korean Americans who have made a splash with their debut novels, as these five writers did. All five have ventured outside of what I’ve called the ethnic literature box, going far beyond the traditional stories expected from Asian Americans. They established a trend that is happily growing. 

Don's book list on by now-established Korean American authors

Don Lee Why did Don love this book?

In 1950s Sewanee, Chang and Katherine slowly fall in love and find that the Souths of Korea and Tennessee are not that different after all, both subject to lingering issues of class, family, race, and civil war. I love the poetic language in this novel, as well as its ambitious story and the complexity invested in every relation.

By Susan Choi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Foreign Student as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This wonderful hybrid of a novel--a love story, a war story, a novel of manners--introduces a writer of enchanting gifts, a beautiful heart wedded to a beautiful imagination. How else does Susan Choi so fully inhabit characters from disparate backgrounds, with such brilliant wit and insight? The Foreign Student stirs up great and lovely emotions."  — Francisco Goldman, author of The Ordinary Seaman

The Foreign Student is the story of a young Korean man, scarred by war, and the deeply troubled daughter of a wealthy Southern American family. In 1955, a new student arrives at a small college in the…


Book cover of Pachinko

Kern Carter Author Of And Then There Was Us

From my list on family drama, sacrifice, and how beautifully messy a family can be.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in a large family that initially didn’t include my mother or father. My mother made the sacrifice of leaving our island of Trinidad to make a home for us in Canada. She was separated from us for years while my grandparents raised me and my brothers. I think that type of upbringing triggered my curiosity about what a family can be. When I became a father at 18, the question of what kind of family I would build became the central theme of my life. It still is today, which is why stories that revolve around family are so captivating for me. 

Kern's book list on family drama, sacrifice, and how beautifully messy a family can be

Kern Carter Why did Kern love this book?

I loved this book because it shows generations of family sacrifice and how the decisions we make in our lifetime can live on for decades after we pass.

I rushed to read this book every evening and had to pull myself away. It was so amazing to me that this author could weave through years and years of family history in a clear, coherent, and powerful way. 

By Min Jin Lee,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Pachinko as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* The million-copy bestseller*
* National Book Award finalist *
* One of the New York Times's 10 Best Books of 2017 *
* Selected for Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club *

'This is a captivating book... Min Jin Lee's novel takes us through four generations and each character's search for identity and success. It's a powerful story about resilience and compassion' BARACK OBAMA.

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja…