**I received an ARC from the publisher through Netgalley. These are my honest opinions, and in no way was I compensated for this review.**
Book: Once Upon a K-Prom by Kat Cho
Release Date: May 17, 2022
My Rating: 4 stars
Rep: Korean-American protagonist, Korean love interest and side characters, Mexican-American side character; (Korean-American author)
CW: mentions of death of a parent (father) from a car accident
Summary: What would you do if the world’s biggest K-pop star asked you to prom? Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sandhya Menon, this hilarious and heartfelt novel brings the glamour and drama of the K-pop world straight to high school.
Elena Soo has always felt overshadowed. Whether by her more successful older sisters, her more popular twin brother, or her more outgoing best friend, everyone except Elena seems to know exactly who they are and what they want. But she is certain about one thing – she has no interest in going to prom. While the rest of the school is giddy over corsages and dresses, Elena would rather spend her time working to save the local community center, the one place that’s always made her feel like she belonged.
So when international K-pop superstar Robbie Choi shows up at her house to ask her to prom, Elena is more confused than ever. Because the one person who always accepted Elena as she is? Her childhood best friend, Robbie Choi. And the one thing she maybe, possibly, secretly wants more than anything? For the two of them to keep the promise they made each other as kids: to go to prom together. But that was seven years ago, and with this new K-pop persona, pink hair, and stylish clothes, Robbie is nothing like the sweet, goofy boy she remembers. The boy she shared all her secrets with. The boy she used to love.
Besides, prom with a guy who comes with hordes of screaming fans, online haters, and relentless paparazzi is the last thing Elena wants – even if she can’t stop thinking about Robbie’s smile…right?
As soon as I heard about this book, I knew it was one that I had to read. The idea of your old best friend becoming a K-pop idol and then returning to fulfill a childhood promise to take you to prom? Such a wild ride, and I definitely had so much fun while reading this book. In Once Upon a K-Prom, a girl’s childhood best friend—and now a world-famous K-pop idol—comes back into her life, and she must decide if his spotlight is worth getting to know him again while also discovering her own passions.
Elena Soo is used to people leaving her: her sisters, her friends, her first crush. When her childhood best friend Robbie comes back into her life to fulfill their pact to go to prom together, she has a hard time connecting him as a member of the most famous K-pop group in the world and the boy she once knew. He really does want to reconnect with her, though, and she begrudgingly gets pulled into his world of cameras and fans. She can’t help but fall for him again, and vice versa, and their friendship eventually (and finally) turns into feelings neither of them can ignore anymore.
This book was so much fun! I read it all in one day because I couldn’t put it down. The premise sounds so wild, but the circumstances of the book felt very natural. It was also interesting how detailed the boy group Robbie is a part of, WDB, was, with profiles of each member throughout the novel as well as hints toward their backstory. While aspects of the K-pop industry are prevalent throughout the book, they’re explained well enough for people who might not know but not too detailed to be longwinded for people who do know, so I think this story will be enjoyable to K-pop fans and non-fans alike.
I was confused by the BTS erasure at first, but I soon realized that WDB basically takes over their existence for the purposes of the story. It doesn’t detract from your experience if you just don’t overthink it, which I probably was. I will say that I thought the book portrayed idol life as only stifling and rigid—and it obviously can be, don’t get me wrong—but I felt like parts of it leaned into “the dark side of K-pop” rhetoric where some people act like idols are machines and not allowed to do anything their company doesn’t want. Maybe I’m just overthinking it again because there wouldn’t be much of a story without this conflict, I guess.
Anyways, I really liked the characters! We get both Elena’s and Robbie’s point-of-view although I would say Elena is more of the main character. Robbie’s chapters provided some more insight on what was happening on his side and fleshed out his character, but most of the story is Elena’s. Elena has gone through life not able to pinpoint an interest or a hobby, and she’s used to being overlooked. Her older sisters never come home anymore, and her mom focuses more on her twin brother Ethan than her. I liked seeing her begin to realize that people do, in fact, care about her and see her, even if that’s not what it seems like at first. Meanwhile, Robbie wants to produce and write his own music but is scared of his ideas getting rejected by the company.
I really liked how, while this is a diasporic story, Elena doesn’t struggle with her Korean-American identity. Obviously these feelings and stories are valid, but I did relate more to how being Korean American is not a source of conflict for her. Her Korean culture is just a part of her and not one that she feels out-of-place for, a bit of a privileged position as she acknowledges.
The side characters were also great. Ethan obviously feels pushed away by Elena, not that she’ll hear it, and they do have a nice talk toward the end of the book. Elena’s best friend Josie tries to get her out of her comfort zone but also supports her when she’s down. Elena also volunteers at a community center where she’s very close to the people who regularly visit there. They’re the reason why she works so hard to campaign for funding to keep the center open when it’s on the brink of being shut down. I also liked reading about the other members of Robbie’s group; they have a good rapport and are particularly playful with Robbie, who’s the maknae or the youngest of the group.
The romance was really cute! As I said before, this is an “estranged childhood best friends to lovers” story. Elena and Robbie were childhood friends that haven’t spoken in four years after Robbie became a trainee. However, all this time, Elena thought he ghosted her and rebuffs his first attempt at asking her to prom because of this. Once they get over this, they begin to relearn their friendship with each other, rekindling their romantic feelings for each other.
Overall, Once Upon a K-Prom was a fun, adorable story that also navigated discovering your passion. I liked the characters, and the romance was very cute. Whether you’re into K-pop or not, I think anyone can enjoy this estranged-childhood-friends-to-lovers story!
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About the Author: Kat Cho used to hide books under the bathroom sink and then sneak in there to read after bedtime. Her parents pretended not to know. This helped when she decided to write a dinosaur time-travel novel at the tender age of nine. Sadly, that book was not published. She currently lives and works in NYC and spends her free time trying to figure out what kind of puppy to adopt. Kat is the international bestselling author of Wicked Fox and Vicious Spirits (Putnam/Penguin). As well as the webcomic, Free Hexel, and the YA romcom, Once Upon a K-Prom (Disney).