2021 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
When You Trap a Tiger
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.)
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller is the recipient of the 2021 ALA Newbery Award1 as well as the APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature.2 Ms. Keller is an Own Voices author, which is “an author from a[n] . . . under-represented group writing . . . from their own perspective.”3 Keller’s character Lily, the protagonist in this year’s Newbery winner, is, like Keller, Korean American. This middle grade story is similar to the 2019 Newbery winner, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, in that both books feature an ailing and dying grandparent. Merci’s Cuban-American grandfather, Lolo, has Alzheimer’s disease; Lily’s Korean grandmother, Halmoni, has cancer. Each of these stories has a measure of sadness based on the end-of-life issues the characters are dealing with.
As Keller’s story begins, Lily’s mother is taking her and her sister Sam from their home in California to Sunbeam, Washington, where they had lived with Halmoni for three years after Dad died. Neither girl was expecting to be abruptly uprooted to return to Sunbeam, so the mood in the car is decidedly cranky. Lily certainly didn’t expect to be the only one in the car on that rainy night to see a tiger in the road, a tiger who will change Lily’s life.
The book is magical realism, a genre that blurs the line between what is real and what is magic (or fantasy). The genre serves to connect Lily with her heritage, and she learns as much from the magical elements as from her day-to-day life. Early on, the tiger offers a Faustian deal to Lily. If she will return the Korean folktales her Halmoni stole from the tigers long ago, the tiger will help Halmoni. “This is your one chance . . . I won’t offer again.”4 There is no time to think about the deal, or even to think about whether the tiger is real, a figment of Lily’s imagination, or maybe a reaction to mental stress. But real or not, the deal with the tiger is struck, and Lily begins her quest to save Halmoni’s life. Lily will build a tiger trap, try to bake rice cakes, and carry star jars to the tiger. The jars hold the stories that she is returning, and she must listen to the tiger tell each story as it is released. These are not easy tasks.
Her mother presses her to go to the library to make friends, but Lily has never liked this library and is troubled that her mother doesn’t remember this fact. Lily, soon to be in seventh grade, is confused about who she is. Her sister calls her a QAG—a quiet Asian girl. But Lily thinks she is not merely quiet, but invisible. No one really sees her, which compounds her difficulties. Sam is a moody, angry teen. Their mother is worried about Halmoni’s cancer, focused on finding employment, and eager for her girls to find friends in Sunbeam. Lily feels responsible to save her grandmother, a task that is actually impossible. Her beloved Halmoni moves between mental clarity and hallucinations brought on by her cancer—confusion that frightens Lily and intensifies her need to find and release the stolen stories. Halmoni has always cared for Lily and Sam by telling them Korean folktales and preparing Korean foods to serve first to the spirits and then to the family. Now the roles have reversed, and Lily doesn’t know how to navigate Halmoni’s illness. How can she deal with death and Sam’s cruelty and . . . the tiger, . . . how does she handle the tiger?
When Lily and Sam help with a library fundraiser, they begin to find their place in the community. They learn that Halmoni is deeply loved by the people of Sunbeam. And they begin to experience some positive, shared moments as they finally talk about the cancer and the fear that they will lose their memories of Halmoni and their history, just as Sam has lost her memories of Dad, memories Lily was too young to have made in the first place.
The primary theme of the book is the power of story to inform, to heal, and to connect the present with the past. There are some lovely, poignant scenes, but there is, as well, a gray pall over the book. Death and dying, awkward friendships, and family failures aplenty propel the book forward. Will Halmoni recover? Will the spirits be appeased? Will Sam believe in magic again?
Some scenes are honest but painful. When Mom finally explains the disease, its potential outcome, and Halmoni’s right to make choices about her own future, Sam accuses her mother of essentially killing their grandmother. Mom says, “It’s in God’s hands now,”5 and Sam responds, “What if I don’t believe in God?”6 Sam’s question is never addressed, but her question would be one to discuss with a young reader.
There are a number of topics, in fact, that would merit conversations, including end of life concerns, feminism, Korean culture, God and religion and mysticism, and a passing LGBTQ reference. The worldview in this story is unsubstantial at best, with uncertainty about what truth is and whether opposing truths can both be accurate. Online reviews indicate that many adults are quite taken with the book, but time will tell whether these topics would interest and engage an 8- to 12-year-old.
Lily’s family is a struggling family, albeit loving. And while there is value in seeing how others handle challenges, it is unsettling to see a young girl who is living lines from the poem “Invictus”—“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”7 A fruitful discussion might come from asking what would be different if Lily were not on her own and had the hope and help found in a truly biblical worldview.
4 Tae Keller. When You Trap a Tiger (New York: Random House Children’s Books, 2020), 99.
5 Keller, 170.
6 Keller, 171.