MMGM and #IMWAYR: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
If you're reading this on Monday from the United States, happy Memorial Day! I hope everyone is enjoying their long weekend. Also, if you're interested, don't forget to check out my Thursday Thoughts post on the woes and joys of book-hoarding!
I also want to mention that I will be participating in my very first reading challenge, the 2021 Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by the wonderful #IMWAYR blogger Sue Jackson at Book by Book! This post is already alarmingly long as is, so I'll just mention that you can head to this link to hear about the books I'm challenging myself to read this summer as part of this event!
For today's review for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am looking at this year's Newbery Medal winner: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller.
I've seen a few reviews of this book recently, but honestly, I haven't seen much attention paid to When You Trap a Tiger, this year's recipient of the Newbery Medal and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children's Literature. I was surprised by this—maybe some of the other awards (like Christina Soontornvat's double-Newbery-Honor with A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen) stole this one's thunder, but I'm still not totally convinced that's what's going on. Regardless, I'm excited to be giving this book a bit of attention on my blog here today! (Especially since—at the last possible moment—I have a book that's appropriate for AAPI Heritage Month, which ends today.)
When You Trap a Tiger's protagonist is Lily, a young girl going into seventh grade who feels invisible—most people look past her and leave her to her own devices, including her own mother at times. Lily is mostly fine with this—she doesn't want to be the center of attention anyway—but things change when her mother decides that the three of them (Mom, Lily, and her older sister Sam) should move away from their home in California to be with their halmoni (a Korean word for grandmother). Halmoni is glamorous and energetic, she believes in spirits, she has told Lily Korean folktales for as long as Lily can remember, and she makes everyone—including Lily—feel seen. But suddenly Halmoni is ill, and when a magical tiger that only she and Lily see begins seeking out the family, it becomes clear that Halmoni has secrets—and she just might have stolen something from the tigers. The tiger makes an offer to Lily: return what Halmoni has stolen, and the tiger will work to heal her. But tigers are full of tricks and lies, and as Lily finds her regular life intertwined with magic that straddles the line between make-believe and reality, she might just come upon revelations about herself, her family's past, and the stories that define who we are.
This book is ridiculously difficult to review. I came into this book with a set of expectations, about it being some kind of magical journey full of adventure and excitement. And those were totally wrong. I spent the first 100-150 pages of the book frustrated—it appeared that I had stumbled into the very sort of plotless, depressing MG realistic fiction (dead parents and cancer, anyone?) that I have spent so long trying to escape, combined with a sense of dread that made me want to put the book down rather than anxiously continue reading. On Thursday night, I found myself ranting in my head about how frustrated I was with this book, and how frustrated I was with all the obnoxiously clichéd MG books I have waiting on my bookshelf, and how I just wanted to give up on this story. But I had a review to write, and so I sat down to keep going, feeling like I used to feel in school when I had some boring novel to read just to get the homework done. And then something changed around page 150. And it kept changing. And suddenly, I loved this book. The sadness I felt through the beginning started to seem like an intentional choice, not an accident—and it was an intentional choice that made the rest of the book make more sense. I started to settle into the rhythm, and connect with Lily and the other characters, and enjoy the happy moments of this story. And then I got to the end. And I understood why this book won the Newbery Medal. To say that I understood it is not to say that I can explain it—I am still not 100% sure what the takeaway is from the end of the book. I only know that it was executed flawlessly, that everything that had happened up to that point began to make sense in a larger context, all the clichés and grief and sneaking around. And characters developed, and awful things happened, and characters found the strength in themselves to keep going in spite of the awful things, to keep seeking out the joy in the world, to keep changing and growing and learning from the past to shape the future. By the end of this book, I was thoroughly convinced that it is genius—and even as it seems so simple, with Tae Keller's clear, mostly-no-frills writing style, I am still dumbfounded by what she did to make all of this work so well at the end. I am now convinced that this book is brilliant—not an all-time favorite, but still brilliant. And I don't even know how to explain what I took away from the ending. There were ways in which this book seemed to predict the feelings I had about the book itself—it illustrated the value of sad stories right as I was frustrated with it being such a sad story, and it made points about how stories cannot be bottled up or captured right as I felt like I could not pin it down enough to explain it. Just look at the title. When you trap a tiger...what happens? Well, let's just say it's not very effective. And this book is a tiger, not just in the way that it has a fierce heart, a determination to be heard, but in the way that it cannot be pinned down. When you think it's one thing, it's another. When you try to explain it, to simplify it down into a page-long book review, it escapes your grasp, as wild as anything else in nature. It doesn't add up, how a seemingly simple story can so utterly elude me, and yet here we are. It is so frustrating, and so wonderful at the same time.
So that was all very poetic and yet utterly meaningless, so I'm going to try my best to explain something, anything, that made sense to me about this book. This book throws in a dead father for good measure (not even remotely the saddest part of the book, and I wondered multiple times why the father had to be deceased at all). But it does reflect on Lily and her family. Lily doesn't remember her father, but her older sister Sam does, and though it seems like grief has caused her to turn into the goth-argumentative-family-hater sort that pretty much every teenager is already (even when their parents are alive), Sam is more layered than that, and we start to see throughout the story that grief, and just being a teenager, have affected her in other ways. But to Lily, Sam is a frustrating older sister, making an unusual situation worse with her bad attitude and insistence that magic is not real (there has to be one of those characters, right?). Lily's mom approaches things in a different way; she just tries to act super-happy all the time and pretend nothing is wrong. But she's also more complex than that, and we learn more about her childhood, her grief, her relationship with Halmoni, and the better sides of her as the story goes on. And then, of course, there's Lily, our protagonist. Lily is a shy kid (I can relate) who doesn't have any friends at the start of the story, and she also has a lingering fear, thanks to Sam, that she is just a living stereotype, a "QAG," as Sam puts it (short for Quiet Asian Girl). Lily has grown accustomed to her invisibility in some ways, but she is the protagonist of a book, after all, and she soon enough finds herself having to step into the spotlight, having to negotiate with tigers, having to deal with the unusual angry thoughts she finds spinning up inside her, and having to figure out whether she is more than just her invisibility. Lily starts off seeming like a simple character, but there's a richness and depth to her that forms later in the story, and the book's emphasis on people being more than just one surface-level trait is evident in Lily's characterization. In short: Lily, Sam, and their mom will seem simple at the start of the story, but they're not. You'll see.
I want to take some time now to talk about Lily's halmoni. Halmoni is a truly wonderful character, a woman who survived a painful childhood and made a happy, bustling life for herself. Halmoni proves that her age is meaningless throughout the story—even through her illness, she is still a compassionate human being who works to help others and participate in her community. Also, Halmoni's relationship with Lily is a beautiful one. Halmoni and her stories are what make Lily want to believe in magic, and the traditions that Halmoni keeps up to please the spirits and avoid bad luck have also been ways that Halmoni has connected with Lily over the years. Halmoni is beloved by her town, but because of her seemingly-superstitious beliefs (and spooky-looking home on the edge of town), there are some less-kind ideas that circulate around town about Halmoni, such as that she is a witch. And as Lily finds out about these, she has moments where she struggles to reconcile her love of Halmoni and her beliefs with her wish to fit in, and even, at times, her wish to have a "normal" (White-acting) grandmother.
All of that leads into the other discussion: the tiger, and what Lily ends up doing about the whole healing-her-Halmoni situation. I obviously can't share too much for fear of spoilers, but I do want to say a few things that are relevant here. The tiger that tracks down Lily and her family (a talking, invisible-except-to-Lily-and-Halmoni tiger, to be clear) is clearly a frightening character, but she's also a layered character. She seems like a cruel trickster, but it becomes clear that things aren't that simple, and even if they don't turn out the way Lily expects them too, there's a level of blind faith that both Lily and readers have to have in the tiger that things will turn out all right. Blind faith honestly feels like a major theme of this book—I felt like I had to muster up a lot of blind faith in the author, Tae Keller, that she would take me to the end of the story without letting everything collapse or become so awful I couldn't bear it. (She delivered on that, I should add.) There's a level of faith in magic in general that has to be held throughout the story—Keller walks a tightrope of making the magic seem believable but also planting in just enough seeds of doubt that you wonder if it's all in Lily's head. And even Lily wonders that, at times. But it's not really about whether the magic is real or not—the book makes clear that it's more about whether you dare to believe, regardless. And I know that sounds pretentious and silly, but the book really does make it work, surprisingly. One other thing I'd like to add is that, as part of Lily's relationship with the tiger, stories must be exchanged. We see several stories inspired by Korean folktales in the book, and besides the obvious woo-hoo for representation that those stories are, they also play other roles. There's a theme to the stories that we all have a fierceness inside of us—maybe it's magical, maybe it's not, maybe it's both, but there's an element to every one of us that makes us fight for what we believe in, even if we think we are as invisible as Lily. Those stories also act as a form of representation for Lily herself, reminding her of the strength of those who came before her, ancestors who braved pain and suffering so their descendants could have better lives. And last but not least, the stories help show Lily that, even without happy endings, stories can still show readers the way to a better life—and they give Lily the strength she needs to deal with her story's own ending, which is not a picture-perfect happy ending, and which, somewhat surprisingly, is all the better for it.
There's other things I could talk about with this book, like the delightful town library (featuring grouchy librarian Joe and jovial teenage employee Jensen), or Lily's friend Ricky (who can be wise beyond his years but also a regular child—although I did find him frustrating at times), or many more topics. But I want to conclude before everyone's eyes glaze over. There's something slightly burdening about the Newbery Medal—it has always been awarded to certain kinds of books, and I imagine many readers avoid books with the medal, thinking they will be depressing and seemingly written more for adults, despite what the authors say. What is striking about this book—in a similar manner to what was striking about one of this year's Newbery Honor books, Fighting Words—is that, although it seems just like every Newbery book (grief, complex topics, sad stuff, etc.), it is incredibly different from the Newbery books I remember. Tae Keller has clearly written this story with every intent of speaking to children, not other adults. Into this book, she has woven an incredible volume of topics, such as racial identity, the value of sadness and anger, and the importance of stories in figuring out who other people are—and who we ourselves are. It's hard to describe precisely what Keller has done here, and I can't lie—I found this book frustrating for a long stretch. But in the same way that Lily had to have blind faith in the tiger, and I had to have blind faith in Tae Keller, you just might have to have blind faith in me that this book, for all of its faults, accomplishes something truly amazing.
My rating is: Really good!