2021 Newbery Medal Winner: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

About 5 or 6 years ago, I went on a Newbery kick. I printed the list of all the Newbery medal winners and the Honor books and worked my way through 100+, many of the books from my own personal collection or from the library. Now, every year when the Newbery medals are handed out, I try to read the new books. When You Trap a Tiger (Amazon) is the 2021 Newbery Medal winner.

From the publisher: “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’m usually not into magical realism, but I found myself absolutely charmed by When You Trap a Tiger. “The tigers looking for me,” she says, running her hand down my arm, lost in thought. “I steal something that belong to them—long, long ago, when I little like you—and now they want it back.” So says Lily’s halmoni (grandmother), and Lily is the only one in the family that sees the tiger. The tiger is as real to her as the rice cakes her halmoni makes.

Halmoni is dying, which isn’t revealed at first, but becomes apparent as the book goes on. Lily struggles with this fact, as her grandmother has been a very important part of her life. She tries to talk to her older sister, who seems to be in denial, and her mother just seems to want to hide the facts. She has no one to turn to until she visits the local library across the street and makes friends with a boy, Ricky, who seems to have no friends, either. As their relationship develops, the kid gets a little insensitive to Lily’s background and he actually apologizes by saying “I apologize for judging your culture and for being intolerant of other beliefs. I created a hostile environment.” Like, what 11-year old talks like that? Sounds like he was coached by his dad.

I was able to immerse myself in the story and could easily imagine the magical tiger conversing with Lily, and the jars full of stories that are stored in Halmoni’s basement.

If you’re looking to expose your kids to other cultures, this book is a good way to do it. I learned things about the Korean culture and customs that I didn’t know, not that I knew a lot about them in the first place. The stories and characters are well-drawn and it’s easy to imagine them through the author’s expert prose.

This is the 8th library book I’ve read this year as part of my Library Love Reading Challenge.

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