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Book Review: When You Trap A Tiger, 2021 Newbery Winner

Title: When You Trap A Tiger

Author: Tae Keller

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN #978-1-5247-1570-0

When You Trap a Tiger is the newest Newbery Award Winner and along with that comes pretty high expectations! For some readers, this might be their first dip into magical realism, a type of fiction that depicts the world as it appears, but with hints or forces of magic as well. 

In this case, Lily, older sister, Sam, and her mother move in with Halmoni, (the Korean word for Grandmother), in a small town in Oregon from California. As they near Halmoni’s house, Lily sees a tiger in the middle of the road no one else sees. Lily continues to not only see the tiger, but is forced to barter with her in order to help save Halmoni from grave illness. More than just a quest to save her grandmother, Lily navigates her relationships with family members and potential new friendships, all while deciding what type of person she wants to be and dealing with a tiger! 

Outside of themes from the Korean folktales, this book captures additional themes of identity, the circle of life, adolescence (slight spoiler alert: older sister Sam will reveal a budding romance at the end), cancer, single-parent families, overcoming fear, and learning deficits. If your child tends to be an introvert in a made-for-extroverts world, Lily will be an inspiring character. 

“I accept it, and warmth spreads up my fingertips and through my body. A small part of me perks up, smiles. And I’m not sure the smiles reaches my face, but maybe this is how healing starts – small bits of happiness waking up inside you, until maybe one day it spreads through your whole self.” -Lily

Tae Keller, When You Trap a Tiger

With the introduction of Korean folktales, this book may be a gateway to discussion about similarities and differences between traditional tales from around the world. However, many children may find the folktales and tiger narrative in this book confusing, especially since the reader continues to question whether or not the tiger is real or only in Lily’s mind. The book is recommended for grades 3-7 or ages 8-12. 

This book brought to mind several other favorites. First, the unique characters and quaint town setting reminded me of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, with Halmoni’s likeness to Gloria Dump and Joe, the librarian, another perennial town fixture like Otis or Miss Franny.

“I like order. I like organization. The idea of all the information in the world, all organized, everything in its place- I like that idea. But I’ve been doing this job for a long time. And the thing I’ve learned is that stories aren’t about order and organization. They’re about feelings. And feelings don’t always make sense. See, stories are like…water. Like rain. We can hold them tight, but they always slip through our fingers. That can be scary. But remember that water gives us life. It connects continents. It connects people. And in the quiet moments, when the water’s still, sometimes we can see our own reflection.” -Joe”

Tae Keller, When You Trap a Tiger

I also thought of Circus Mirandus, another example of magical realism, by Cassie Beasley. As Grandpa Ephraim nears his last days, he shares his stories of Circus Mirandus with grandson, Micah, who comes to believe clues to unanswered questions must certainly be found in the circus. Finally, I thought of Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, the story of Jackson and the reappearance of his imaginary cat friend, when life for his family becomes increasingly difficult. 

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I felt that as an adult, I was equipped to handle many of the themes and could navigate the gray area between fantasy and reality. However, I felt that many middle grade readers might be too confused or overwhelmed to appreciate all the book has to offer. The read-alike books above may be better suited to that age group. 

Keller, Tae. When You Trap A Tiger. New York, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020.

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