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when you trap a tiger

1 march 2021

Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger, the 2021 Newbery Medal winner, is an unobjectionable children's novel with a heartfelt central situation.

Lily, the narrator, is a middle-school "QAG," as she calls herself: Quiet Asian Girl, the kind who does her homework and never registers on those around her. She doesn't share her high-school sister Sam's extroversion and charisma, or her mother's kinetic self-confidence, or her Halmoni's – her Korean grandmother's – mystic sense of alignment with the universe.

Or does she? Lily and her Halmoni are the only two characters who can see the Tiger, an ambiguous spirit animal that may be stalking them or may be saving them. Ultimately the quiet girl and her strong-willed grandmother bond over the Tiger's rapacious appetite for narrative, in the form of stories that Halmoni had "stolen" in her youth and now, at the end of her days, must surrender.

More prosaically, Halmoni is dying of cancer, and Keller's novel charts a chalkline-straight course toward her eventual death and Lily's need to come to terms with it. The girls' mother has picked up their whole life and moved it from California to Washington State so that they can see the grandmother out of this world, and initially the girls pout about the situation, but when they learn why they've been displaced, they come round quickly. (There is no father in the novel; he has died in an accident some time before it begins – one of the many absent parents in children's literature, who disproportionately perish rather than leave via divorce, simplifying single-parent plotlines.)

Whatever the Tiger represents in the story – and it seems to include elements of magical realism as well as to serve figuratively for a process of coping with grief – Lily can't face it alone. She must seek out friends in the largely white small town where her Halmoni lives. This town is one of those benign, heartwarming places that exist mainly in children's fiction, full of gentle eccentric characters who mildly code Halmoni as different but have been won round to love her when they realize the skills she has as an herbalist and her basic ability to tap into a spiritual realm that, being white Americans, they've mostly severed themselves from. Lily, who's never had many friends back in urban California who stuck around for long, finds "sticky" allies in her new home who help steer her through the shoals ahead.

There is sadness in When You Trap a Tiger, but not much conflict and hence no real drama. Lily's upper-middle-class family exhibits some typical American alienation, as in Sam's addiction to her cellphone; but a warm mist of love soon enfolds them all once adversity looms. It's a pleasant book where the big problem is mortality itself, and I guess that's enough of a problem for any story.

Keller, Tae. When You Trap a Tiger. New York: Random House [Penguin Random House], 2020. PZ 7.1 .K418Whe