Once Upon a K-Prom
Once Upon a K-Prom is a spin on the “ordinary girl meets famous boy” YA story, incorporating the recent global success of K-Pop. Elena Soo’s childhood best friend Robbie Choi moved home to Korea when they were both ten. While Elena feels adrift, without anything to make her special, Robbie became a K-Pop idol. And not just a mere idol: Robbie’s group WDB (think BTS) is THE bestselling international K-Pop boy band. So when Robbie turns up to honor their childhood pledge to attend prom together, Elena feels out of her depth.
What works in this book
- making Elena and Robbie former best friends, instead of writing a contrived meeting between ordinary-Elena and famous-Robbie.
- Incorporating Korean culture. For instance, the local older Koreans are proud of Robbie for becoming famous, but especially for him becoming famous as a global representative of Korea. The band’s music incorporates Korean instruments, and the performers are multilingual. The band’s name is WDB, and the author explains:
WDB stood for 원더별, which meant “Wonder Star” but it was pronounced “Wondeo Byul” … [a] mix of English and Korean so it sounded like “Wonderful.”
This effective representation of the culture of diaspora Koreans and the naming conventions of K-Pop segues nicely into…
- The author clearly knows her K-Pop, from its dating bans to its brutal training process and realistically includes social media and fandom culture in Elena and Robbie’s spotlight relationship.
- Elena is not A Brilliant Teen Artist or one of the other exceptionalities often put on YA heroines. In fact, her big struggle is not being able to find an activity or a belief in which to anchor her identity, having started and abandoned dozens of hobbies. (I would have been even more interested if this book had explored the possibility that Elena has undiagnosed ADHD).
What doesn’t work:
- Elena has a weird abandonment fixation around people doing completely normal things, like going to college or relocating for a promotion. The latter is even more bewildering because she isn’t portrayed as that close to the person relocating until the relocation happens.
- Elena’s parents treat her unequally compared with her twin, the only boy in the family. The resolution of this occurs only between Elena and her brother (and frankly he gets off too easily); there is no resolution with her parents
- There’s a Big Mis around Robbie’s interest in Elena, and once you find out about it, you are just marking time until Elena finds out and triggers the Tragic Separation. This is by far the worst problem, which completely squished my reading momentum in the last third of the book.
I do love Korean stories and Asian diaspora stories. For the intended audience of YA readers who aren’t as tired of the predictable Big Mis last-act climax structure as I am, Once Upon a K-Prom will probably be a successful read. For me, though, while the book caught my attention, it didn’t hold it.
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I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.