I’m excited to share a review of the newest Newbery Medal winner: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. I was immediately intrigued by this book when I heard it had won in 2020. And it was a fascinating and poignant story about the power of storytelling and the importance of family.
I was really intrigued by this novel and was excited when my virtual book club decided to read it this year. It’s taken me a while to write down and sort through my thoughts. I guess because there were things I loved and things I wanted more of and things that were disappointing.
According to Goodreads, “Some stories refuse to stay bottled up…
When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni’s Korean folktales arrives, prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history. Long, long ago, Halmoni stole something from the tigers. Now, the tigers want it back. And when one of those tigers offers Lily a deal–return what Halmoni stole in exchange for Halmoni’s health–Lily is tempted to accept. But deals with tigers are never what they seem! With the help of her sister and her new friend Ricky, Lily must find her voice… and the courage to face a tiger.“
I absolutely loved the Korean folklore weaved into the story. The myths and stories that become a part of the novel were really neat and so beautifully written. The stories of the sisters who fear the tigers. The stories of hope and sadness, of despair and love. They reminded me of the books I’ve read from Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon & Starry River of the Sky). Lin beautifully incorporates Chinese folklore into those books. Both of those books as well. I loved the connections to Korean culture,superstitions and stories — stories become stars, “when tigers walked like man,” throwing rice to ward off evil. These details added depth to the story and made the myths feel part of reality.
My favorite character was the tiger herself. She is unexpected, wise, and intriguing. She has a mythic almost magical way that she enters and controls parts of the story. There was some debate in the virtual book club discussion meeting if the tiger was real or not. I think she definitely is. I think myth and reality connect and influence each other in this story. And perhaps it’s not as important whether the tiger is a real life animal prowling around Halmoni’s town. It’s more about what she represents. The best place to find a tiger is a place of knowledge–the library. I loved that.
I think all the family relationships were very well developed. I really liked Lily and her journey to becoming strong and a keeper of stories for her family. She begins the story putting herself in a box as a QAG (quiet Asian girl) and thinks her best superpower is to be invisible. But she discovers her courage to trap a tiger and to hear the sad, difficult stories of the past. We learn so much about Lily’s relationship with her Halmoni (grandmother), her sister Sam, and her mother. And the relationships between all those characters. It is really beautiful how Halmoni is able to heal and how the relationships are able to heal as well. It’s not what I expected but it’s really beautifully told. Also loved how Lily has to understand Halmoni’s identity in her hometown and not just when she visits. I enjoyed the connections Halmoni has to the people around her. We see her gifts and strengths but also her weaknesses and illness. Each member of the family must come to terms with Halmoni’s health and identity. And it’s interesting to see how different those journeys are.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one. The Korean folklore is fantastic and the storytelling is very well done. This book addresses a lot of difficult and important issues like the loss of a parent to death, the loss of a parent who leaves, sickness and aging of family members, moving to a new place, and more. It addresses some of these issues quite well and others seem just glossed over. My main qualm with the story was the insertion of Sam’s relationship at the end. It felt out of place, a bit political, and not essential to the story. The ending fell a bit flat for me but did tie up loose ends. I would recommend this one for older middle grade readers. And I think parents would get a lot out of this story as well. A well deserved Newbery winner!
What books have you enjoyed that introduce you to different cultures and stories?
What are some of your favorite Newbery winners?
I read this Newbery Medal winner as a part of my Newbery Challenge.
My current goal is to read at least 1 Newbery winner a month until I’ve read them all.