Here’s the synopsis for
Once Upon A Kprom
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?
I got into Korean pop and, subsequently Korean dramas (the few that were available at the time to a small American audience) in 2007, perhaps even 2008. As this was roughly fifteen years ago during my college days, pinpointing exactly when is a bit difficult! What I do remember is I discovered both Girls’ Generation and SHINee in the same summer. That was the year I’d chosen to remain on campus under the student work program. You better believe I had them on my iPod as I patched holes in dorm rooms and repainted them, getting the rooms ready for the upcoming semester.
Around that same time I used to play a MMPORG game online called Shaiya. It’s what I did in my off hours alone in my cozy little room in one of the oldest dorms on campus. It was a wood paneled room with built in bunks and a nook with a desk and bookshelves. It was a comforting space, though it didn’t have its own bathroom, but I was quite all right with that. It meant I could dorm without a roommate until they decided to close the building the following year for renovations. It was, after all, one of the college’s original buildings.
Those of us who didn’t quite enjoy dorm life with the rest of our classmates were often made fun of, but I don’t see how I would’ve, otherwise, gotten any work done. Now that I live alone, pay rent and do all the things by myself, I can see how my introverted nature thoroughly enjoyed my alone time in the old hall. I didn’t really care what other people thought, and it was close to the library.
As such, I feel as though I have a similar experience as ONCE UPON A KPROM’s author, Kat Cho. Though, according to her within the pages of the book, she was more into groups under the company YG Entertainment. Of course, there will always be “kpop wars,” but I chose to ignore all of that very early on. Kpop fans are, in many cases, very strongly opinionated in who they choose to support. I used to be that way, until I remembered Exodus 20:4 – “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
So I never bought lightsticks. Or memorabilia. Or albums. Or joined fandom groups. I told myself that those who entertain us in the Korean media industry really are just people. They may not be just like us, but they have the capacity to fail. To make mistakes. To fall hard from grace. To impact those who follow their careers. Now, even though I am wholly excited for Girls’ Generation’s 15th Anniversary comeback, I also remember the events of 2014. I remember what happened with Big Bang, 2NE1, SHINee and all those popular second generation groups who eventually disbanded for one reason or another.
“So many stars in the sky, each unique and full of destiny. I wanted more than anything to be part of those stars. I never realized becoming one would destroy me.”― Tracy Krimmer, All That Glitters
I say all this to show my background with this musical genre, and that I know a bit about what’s included in this book. And I gotta say that I had loads of fun trying to figure out who certain groups were supposed to be whose names had been changed. Some were more obvious than others. I’ve also reviewed SHINE and BRIGHT by former Girls’ Generation member, Jessica Jung. While I was unable to finish reading those particular titles, I was able to finish ONCE UPON A KPROM in one night. This post WAS originally intended to be a “First Fifty Pages” styled review, but that clearly isn’t how things turned out! Let’s take a look at ONCE UPON A KPROM under four main topics: the tropes, the characters, the settings and the story. Spoilers ahead.
The story mostly follows high school student Elena Soo, the youngest of five siblings, and the most introverted of her friend group. Then there’s Robbie Choi, the friend turned love interest whom she hasn’t seen for seven years.
As mentioned earlier, it was quite fun trying to figure out which fake-named idols in ONCE UPON A KPROM were. I do believe Robbie’s group could’ve been BTS, but then based on the number of members, it could’ve been Big Bang. And Sooyeon could’ve been anyone caught up in a dating scandal from the early 2010s.
Elena is twin to Ethan, and they have three older sisters. The author definitely knows something about how family dynamics can sometimes work in Korea, as they’re often portrayed the same way in kdramas. There’s always the favorite child, or the child the parents are most disappointed in. Though, for this plot, I think it may have been a bit exaggerated.
There are the usual groups of high school students represented – the jocks, the mean girls, those who watched everything unfold. And this is why I comp ONCE UPON A KPROM with both Mean Girls and Princess Diaries.
In true kpop and kdrama form, ONCE UPON A KPROM follows a familiar formula. There’s the place the main character works at (or volunteers), the school where they learn, the place where they live, and a smattering of everything in between.
Now trust me, I get that this is a book for those who love YA, and a high-level MG reader would enjoy this as well. However, as fun as it was, it felt a little, well, cliche for me. “Everything under the sun’s been done,” they say. Heck, I even had visions of an old kdrama called “Dream High” as I read this. “Dream High” is also where I, for lack of a better phrase, fell in love with Ok Taecyeon (I mean…can you blame me?).
But I think the high school setting is one of the reasons I had a hard time getting into this read. I am about 20 years removed from that age, and I didn’t have a good time like the rest of my classmates seemed to. I digress. There is always a hospital scene. Always a high school (or college) scene. Always a scene where the star has to reconnect with their roots or back to reality. It flowed exactly like a drama.
Ah, tropes. The bane of every writer’s existence. Why? Because you gotta decide what traits to give which character, which ones are over used, and which ones you just run with. Ms. Cho definitely takes hold of them and ran. What’s kind of funny is that she did a whole video on this very topic over on her YouTube video:
Let’s take a look at the ones in this video and see if they match up with aspects found in ONCE UPON A KPROM:
- The Disappointed Parent — yes
- Amnesia — no
- Fake relationships — yes
- Living together — no
- Hate to love — no
- Fall from grace — maybe
Ones not discussed in the video but are present in the book are that the main character loves books, there’s a cause she supports, and there’s family tension. Let’s use this as a segue in to The Story itself.
As I mentioned earlier, ONCE UPON A KPROM is a tale definitely written for a younger crowd. Several scenes were a bit unbelievable, but I think that’s due to the fact that it’s written in the style of a Korean high school drama. You have the mean girls (reminiscent of, well, Mean Girls), the broken past friendships, the reconciliation, the pure, unadulterated teasing (reminded me of Boys Over Flowers in a way), and a vibe overall similar to that of Meg Cabot’s PRINCESS DIARIES.
While both main characters do have their own character arcs as well as development, I found myself not on board with the Robbie. Also, the plot device for some of the conflict with Elena felt a bit too…manufactured. However, I know that it will resonate well with a younger audience.
When I was in college, I escaped into Korean dramas myself. It was fun to imagine all the “what if’s” and “it could happen” moments that cropped up in those shows. What I liked most about kdramas is that most are only for a season and anywhere from 16 to 25 episodes. Don’t even get me started, though, on Chinese dramas. Some of those have 100+?! Yeah. No. There is no doubt whatsoever that this book took a lot of time and effort. There is no doubt whatsoever that Ms. Cho is very familiar with what readers expect from a book titled ONCE UPON A KPROM. And there is no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of modern book sales, this is the perfect time for a book such as this. While ONCE UPON A KPROM wasn’t the book for me, it might be for a fun read for you.