When You Trap a Tiger: Newbery Award Winner
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
Genre: Middle Grade
Newbery Award Winner; Asian/Pacific American Award
Published 2020, 293 pages
This book is the second Buddy Read for Donna (my sister) and me in September. She chose this middle grade award winner as something different for us to try. It was a surprise!
First Sentence: "I can turn invisible."
Main Characters: Sisters Lily and Sam; Halmoni (Grandma); Ricky, a friend
A single mom and her daughters, Lily (13) and Sam (16) move in with Halmoni (Korean for Grandma) during the summer break from school. The girls are pulled away from friends and summer plans and Sam, in particular, is angry and is the perfect disgruntled teen. Lily is quiet, shy, and "invisible". Mom is frazzled, worried about the girls and her mom and trying to find a job. The girls don't know it yet, but Grandma is sick and dying.
A magical tiger from Halmoni's stories appears to Lily and she becomes convinced that the tiger can help save her halmoni. The story is told in first person by Lily and follows her as she discovers the nearby library, as she meets other kids in town, as she conquers fears, and as she faces a very sick grandma. The plot is fairly straightforward. The surprise, the pleasure, is in getting to know Lily and seeing her begin to blossom from invisible to a confident visible.
"This is why I didn't want Sam here. When she's here, there's no place for me. I can't stay home. I can't stay here. I am lost." - Lily
I was completely surprised by how much I loved this book. I went into it not expecting much - breeze through it, easy peasy. Instead I found myself lingering over phrases, over thought-provoking moments. I found the Korean cultural references interesting and integral to the story. Not just the tiger myth, but the protections from the spirits, the food, the broken English Halmoni struggled with.
I loved how Lily battled with her perceived invisibility. Sam took up so much loud space and was in constant conflict with Mom, that there was no room for Lily. She was always the one that didn't cause trouble. That's a very common family dynamic and one that's portrayed very clearly but with a positive resolution.
This quote from the quiet librarian is one of the elegant passages:
"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 . . . " He pauses, brow furrowing, then nods, satisfied in finding the right comparison: "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 quiet moments, when the water's still, sometimes we can see our own reflection. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Donna started our conversation with, "So, what did you think?" and I talked for 10 minutes. She laughed and said she was surprised by that reaction and that it's constantly amazing how two people (or 200, or 2,000 people) can read the same book and have different responses. She agreed with all my likes but just not as strongly. It was a good book that she enjoyed, but I think it's an excellent book that I loved!
This would be a great book to read to or with a middle grader - filled with lessons that don't read like a lesson. Filled with wisdom that's disguised as a fun story about a tiger. Filled with inspiration and insights. This book has it all. Donna gives it 4 stars, but I give it FIVE!