Updated: Apr 29
Omo! We missed out celebrating on World Children’s Book Day on April 2, but since we’re still in the same month, we thought we’d continue with our feature anyway. In this article, we’ll take a look at famous children’s stories that were featured in k-dramas.
Children’s books can be deceptively simple sometimes, but the really good and famous ones do contain nuggets of wisdom. K-drama writers are adept at using various influences from the Eastern and the Western literary canon and their scripts show much greater depth for it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2020 hit It’s Okay to Not Be Okay expertly written by Jo Yong.
The drama featured children’s book writer Ko Mun-yeong as its female lead. In keeping with the theme, each episode featured one fairy tale and six original fairy tales (also penned by the scriptwriter) that further highlighted the episode’s theme. The original stories and their beautiful artwork were so popular that they were published after the series ended. In fact, the books made it to the top 20 bestseller list of the month (as of August 24, 2020).
Below are some famous children’s stories or characters that made their way into k-dramas.
The Runaway Bunny
Written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd in 1942, The Runaway Bunny is the first in their "classic series," which also includes the beloved Goodnight Moon.
The touching story of a mother rabbit who will go to great lengths to chase after her runaway kitten, the book plays an important part in Mother (2017), a suspense-drama about an elementary school teacher (Lee Bo-young) who impulsively runs away with her student (Heo Yool) when she realizes the child is being abused at home. Instantly thrust into a mother-daughter situation, the children's book becomes a source of comfort and connection for the duo.
The Velveteen Rabbit
Published in 1922, The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson, tells the story of a toy rabbit who is on a quest to become real.
Although a children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit is philosophical in nature. The book is mentioned several times in the k-drama I Am Not A Robot (2017-18). The drama explores the relationship between a man and a woman whom he has been led to believe is a robot. As his feelings for her grow, he longs for her to become real just like the velveteen rabbit in the story.
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christen Andersen and first published in 1937. (Incidentally, Children’s Book Day is celebrated on the famous author’s birthday.) The original version is about a mermaid who falls in love with a human prince and gives up her voice in exchange for a pair of legs. Although she can walk, each step will be as painful as walking on knives. Unfortunately, the prince does not fall in love with her and the little mermaid faces a terrible choice of killing the prince or dying and turning into sea foam herself.
A modern adaptation of Andersen’s fairy tale, The Idle Mermaid or Surplus Princess (2014), stars Jo Bo-ah as Kim Ha-ni, a mermaid princess. She rescues a chef when he accidentally falls into the Han River. She then decides to drink a magic potion that will allow her to be with him and finds out that she has 100 days to make to find true love; otherwise, she will die. The setting is modern-day Seoul and this mermaid princess finds out about the human world by browsing through a smart phone. She also needs to learn that there are far more complex things about being an adult in a human world than just falling in love.
Alice in Wonderland
English writer Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865. In the story, a young girl named Alice follows a white rabbit down a hole and into a magical and mysterious world. There she meets many fantastical creatures such as the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat. It is the quintessential adventure story with the now often used trope of "it was all a dream” ending.
In the 2012 k-drama Cheongdam-dong Alice starring Moon Geun-young and Park Si-hoo, the female lead is a hardworking fashion designer who gets a job as an assistant for the fashion company president’s wife. Although she has bigger dreams than running around and doing errands, she looks at it as an opportunity to enter into the upper crust world of Cheongdam-dong and land herself a wealthy husband. The female lead’s ascent into high-class society parallels Alice’s descent into wonderland. Although the themes in the k-drama are more realistic and therefore more complex, the lead herself makes the connection with Alice in a voice-over monologue at the end of the series that ties everything together.
The adventures of this iconic wooden boy whose nose grows whenever he lies were written by Italian author Carlo Collodi and first published in a weekly magazine in 1881. In the story, a poor woodcarver named Geppetto carves out a puppet from a talking log given to him by a master carpenter. The mischievous puppet, which he named Pinocchio, gets into all sorts of misadventures in his quest to become a real boy.
In 2014, k-dramaland created a fictional “Pinocchio syndrome” — where the person hiccups when they lie — and gave it to a girl who wants to be a reporter. Park Shin-hye’s character in Pinocchio, Choi In-ha, tries to navigate the ruthless news industry with her unusual handicap, alongside the boy she grew up with as her uncle, Choi Dal-po (played by Lee Jong-suk). Like the children’s story it drew inspiration from, this k-drama uses an unusual condition and sympathetic characters to tackle larger questions about life.
One Stormy Night
One Stormy Night and its companion book One Sunny Day written by Yuichi Kimura and illustrated by Hiroshi Abe tell of the unlikely friendship between a hungry wolf and its natural prey, a goat.
The children's book is alluded to in The Master’s Sun (2013), a love story between a woman who sees ghosts and a rich businessman with a troubled past. When she touches him, the ghosts that trouble her disappear. On the other hand, he needs her to connect with a ghost that holds the answer to a mystery he can’t get to the bottom of. The two of them must find a way to see past their initial differences much like the wolf and the goat in the story.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Edward, a conceited china rabbit, enjoys a rich lifestyle and the lavish love of a child named Abilene. Unfortunately, he accidentally falls into the ocean and is transferred from one owner to another. He eventually ends up on a doll store shelf, waiting to be brought home. His lesson throughout his journey is described succinctly by this passage: "If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless."
In My Love from the Star (2014), the stranded alien Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun) reads the award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo. Like the china rabbit, Min-joon longs for home. With minimum human contact, he has easily changed identities for the past 400 years. However, a few months away from his much-awaited homecoming, he meets his new neighbor, the celebrity Cheon Song-yi (Jun Ji-hyun). His quiet and well-planned life is then turned upside-down as he experiences loving and being loved.
Books featured in hit dramas also get a bump in their book sales; some publishers even pay a lot of money for product placement. Whether the inclusion of books is commercial or artistic, in the hands of a gifted scriptwriter, even the simplest children’s story can be an enriching addition to any k-drama.