I'll Be the One
Skye is, at size 16, an average American girl – but much larger than the average Korean (something her mother will never let her forget) and downright gargantuan in the world of K-pop. Skye, however, won’t let other people’s beauty standards hold her back. Knowing she can dance and sing, she enters a K-pop talent contest called You’re My Shining Star. But is dancing and singing talent enough in a genre that prizes appearance? This is a nice, if simplified, story which would be a good fit for a teen library, but probably isn’t what adults reading YA are looking for.
The book’s a good-time wish-fulfillment story, which makes for a fun read. Rich, famous, popular, and talented Henry is a daydream hero, given slightly more depth because of his sad-puppy backstory and emotional isolation. Skye gets to have several cathartic acts of rebellion and self-affirmation, which will satisfy many readers who have been left tongue-tied in the moment. Her speech about refusing to lose weight if she wins is rousing and worthy of the virality she inspires.
The author is capable of creating meticulously evoked settings when she’s familiar with them (she’s one of the only authors using L.A. as a setting to ever accurately characterize the traffic!). Most adult authors miss the degree to which social media permeates teen life these days, but Skye and her friends check each other’s Instas and photograph their meals and, less positively, get cyberbullied and trolled. She explores the challenges of being LGB and Korean. A visit by Skye and her friends to an L.A. jjimjilbang, or Korean spa/sauna, is so vivid that I could practically smell the pine. Jjimjilbangs require nudity in the spa areas, and Skye’s mini-breakdown about her mother’s weight bullying in what should be a space of relaxation is particularly impactful.
Speaking of Skye’s mom… both parents are underdeveloped. Skye’s mom, who emotionally abuses Skye about her weight, was herself fat as a young woman. But we never learn about how she became the thin, anxious woman Skye knows. We have hints about Skye’s father disagreeing with her mother, and how perhaps it’s related to his American upbringing vs. her mother’s Korean childhood, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Skye’s peers are underdeveloped, too. The two girls she meets in line at the competition become instant trustworthy besties (perilous in an elimination competition), also immediately clocking Skye as a fellow queer girl and coming out to her. (Skye and Henry are both bisexual). Her friends at school lack the dimensionality to even be flat, basically existing so we know Skye wasn’t a pariah before the contest.
K-pop is a rich setting, and I love that we’re getting books that explore it. While this could be a fun one for young people, it doesn’t have the complexity to satisfy an adult reader.