book review: I’ll Be the One

title: I’ll Be the One
author: Lyla Lee
date: Katherine Tegen Books; 2020
main character: SHIN Haneul (Skye)
YA romcom

Lyla Lee was born in South Korea and moved to the US. She soon developed passions for both reading and writing. Le debuted in youth literature with the Mindy Kim chapter book series. Her stories are based in her Korean heritage as well as many personal experiences.

In a recent interview, Lee talks about her introduction to dance, fat shaming and kpop, all essential elements in the romcom, I’ll Be The One, her first young adult novel. She witnessed family members succeed in Korean and Kpop competitions. In the same interview, Lee states “I was actually fat-shamed into quitting dance when I was 3, so falling back in love with dance as an adult inspired me to write the book.” Whatever Lee experienced around weight issues was at a very young age beyond memory, before sweating, getting out of breath, seeking out plus sizes and being uncomfortable with eating in public.

In the book, main character, Skye, rebels against her fat phobic mom and auditions for You’re My Shining Star as both a singer and a dancer. While Skye’s father totally supports his daughter, her mother hides no contempt for her daughter’s plus size. She’s embarrassed to watch Skye dance in public and certainly doesn’t want to see her dancing on television. The audition for the show is early in the book so, we’re not sure of Skye’s talent. But, we do know the bulk of the book remains, a good indicator of what’s about to happen. At that first audition, the tone is set for a fairly friendly competition that seems to be shaken up a bit with the presence of Henry Cho, a very well-known Korean American celebrity. Skye easily meets some of the other women and they remain friends throughout the story. I really appreciated how Lee compared Korean culture to Korean American. While the food and language transcend both, Lee was able to explain differences in thoughts and opinions and she was able to do this without having to prove how American Skye was, as has often been the case in many Asian American young adult novels.

Skye informs readers of attitudes towards fatness that’s she’s faced in her upbringing and all those sentiments are realized through Skye’s mother, one of the judges for the competition and even one of the competitors. Skye’s faced this prejudice all her life and is prepared to inform her critics that despite the problems they have about her weight, that she herself is fine.

In saying the right things, the book is solid. But talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk and this is why the term ‘own voices’ had become so popular. More often than not you have to fully immerse yourself in a culture if you want to accurately represent it. In a conversation with Angie Manfredi, she mentioned the phrase, “not actively harmful” to me a phrase she borrowed from Kyle Lukoff. Lee does an excellent job in arming her character with knowledge about fat phobia; she’s a good ally. Oh, but the devil is in those details. Angie and I went on to discuss how Skye maneuvers the world. Angie’s activism brings to awareness things I do but that I don’t fully realize I do because of my weight and that Skye doesn’t do, doesn’t name. For example, Skye performs a song, singing and dancing the entire number, while two of her thin friends dance in the background. Skye misses neither a note nor a beat as she crosses the stage, singing alongside the trumpet player on one side of the stage and dancing in motion with her friends on the other. When the performance is over, Skye then holds a conversation, never at a loss for breath (or words) even though Lee writes that the thin dancers “are still trying to catch their breath”. (p.302) This leaves the impression that fat people can move and keep up with everyone else. Angie clarified this by saying “cardio like this is tiring for ANYONE and pretending that a fat body is no different than a thin body is ALSO erasure of the lived realities of fat people as well as simply not true for most fat people”. Yet, at the same time, Lee voices through Bora, one of the judges, the phobia people have about simply looking at fat people.

Bora is the first to speak, daintily lifting the mic to her dark-red lips.

“Miss Shin?” she says. “You’re talented, but would you ever consider losing weight? As someone who was a member of a girl group for five years, I can most definitely tell you the camera adds ten pounds, and I’m afraid you’re a bit too…rotund.” (p.25-26)

Talking it, but not walking it.

This shortcoming doesn’t completely ruin the book. Lee has done her homework and presents as a good ally for fat people. Hopefully, the book will cause readers to reconsider their prejudices around fatness. Hopefully, we’ll realize how few fat people we see, not only in Korean American television and movies, but in mainstream entertainment as well. We’ll wonder why we seldom see fat speakers at library conferences or on panels, or even why there are so few fat authors. Angie shared with me an announcement about the sale of the rights for upcoming movie. There, Skye is described as bisexual (which she is in the book) but, there is absolutely no mention of her size even though it is central to the plot.

I’ll Be The One is an otherwise nice romcom. It’s a still too rare glance into Korean culture and kpop that incorporates issues of weight, sexual orientation and popularity.