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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Guest Blogger Post: WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER

“The tiger story.”  That story always felt special, like there was a secret shimmering beneath the words.  “Catch it for me,” she’d tell us, and Sam and I would reach our hands into the air, clenching our fists like we were grabbing stars. (p.9)

WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER by Tae Keller felt like we were grabbing points of light and hope in a world of darkness.  There are many ways it felt distinguished.

In delineation of character, everyone has a purpose in the story and even minor characters like Joe the librarian show several sides of their personality before the end of the book. Some of the characters start out feeling like stereotypes but as Lily learns more about them, they become more fully realized and distinct. Lily starts out as a Quiet Asian Girl (QAG) and slowly works on finding the strength to fight for her family. She stops wanting to be the invisible girl and shows the tiger inside her. Her change was slow with steps forward and back in standing up for herself, making the change more believable to me.

To me the style was also different than the other books I read this year. The difference was the stories within the larger story. Periodically there was a chapter in the book where a story was told that was like Korean mythology or folktales, but also worked as metaphors for what was going on in the present or had happened in the past. This was often used to show different perspectives or tell hard parts of the past to the characters. The reason this worked so well was because of the theme of the book.

The theme seems to be about stories that have the power to change us by both healing and hurting. The stories from a grandmother told to a daughter and granddaughters help the next generation. The stories and history of strong Korean women who are as fierce as the tigers in their myths and legends are passed down from generation to generation. The QAG becomes the tiger who stands up to be heard. The power of story and how it changes us was shown with the Korean myths shared in the book, but also in the family stories told. The sisters shared memories of their father as they grieved for their dying grandmother. The grandmother shared stories of their mother as a young girl with her daughters so they would know her better.

The book does leave more open the question of whether the tiger was real. There was a lot about the power of believing, but there was also some talk of dreams and mugwort as a hallucinogen. I find these questions help a story like this stick with me as I contemplate the answer.

but maybe the world is bigger than I thought.  Maybe there is room for disappearing tigers and captured stars.  (p.50)

Guest Blogger Cheryl has been working in a public library in Northern Indiana for over 20 years.  She does story time for preschoolers and enjoys reading young adult and children’s books.

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Julie Corsaro Corsaro says:

    That was lovely from the beginning (“like grabbing points of light and hope in a world of darkness”) to the end (“I find these questions help a story like this stick with me as I contemplate the answer”).

    WHEN YOU TRAP TIGER is one of my favorites of the year, a work I found distinctive in its use of Korean folk literature and modern magic realism as a way to deal with the distant death of a parent and the impending death of a grandparent.

    All the characters are well realized, including anxious yet courageous narrator, Lilly; her seemingly disaffected big sister, Sam, and her eager yet generous new friend, Ricky. Of course, there’s also the mysterious Halmoni, who is increasingly revealed to her family over the course of the novel as they grow and change.

    The quirky cohort is aided and abetted by Keller’s sublime storytelling in a powerful story about stories, rich in imagery and personification, simile and metaphor, as well as convincing dialogue. The setting, is also vivid from the damp, rain-filled skies of Lilly’s new, Washington state home (and home constitutes a driving force) to the star-filled heavens of Halmoni and the Tiger.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks for the great introduction, Cheryl! I love that this book came out the same year as A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS. They both walk that line between fantasy and reality so neatly. And use wild, dangerous animals as stand-ins for family members…but all in very different ways, to such powerful effect. In WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, that moment when Lily realizes that the tiger’s identity and what that means about herself is just perfect:
    “I pause, turning her words over. ‘My Ae-Cha. Our family’. My family, and hers. “Are you…Halmoni’s mom? Am I…?” I don’t say ‘a tiger-girl,’ because I don’t have to. I already know.” (268)

  3. My favorite aspect of When You Trap a Tiger was the way Lily learns to accept her inner wildness. She discovers that people aren’t simply one way or the other and that life is more complicated than the simple tiger folktale makes it appear. The variations and expansions of the folktale are fascinating. I loved the pudding episode and how Keller used it to show defiance in Lily’s character. Perhaps the rebellious act wasn’t the best decision, but it was an excellent way to illustrate Lily’s love for her halmoni and how she wants to stand up for herself. It also taught Ricky an important lesson about respect. I also love her sister’s complexity.

  4. Definitely one of my favorites so far, in part for the reasons you mention but also because of the way Tae is able to create such a tightly-woven plot full of elements to make adults cheer, but that still speaks directly to the young reader. It is beautiful prose without being too high-flown. It remains in my top five (for now!). FYI: I was fortunate to get a wonderful interview with the author where she talks about this book and her first AMAZING novel THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS (check it out at

  5. Aud Hogan says:

    I’ve been pondering the use of strong animal comparisons in WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER and FIGHTING WORDS, and how they lend strength to the main characters. When Della overhears her friend’s mom saying that she’s being raised by wolves, she embraces it from the start, and is determined to grow up to BE a wolf. It turns into a pretty important theme in the book, and becomes part of her personal life philosophy. In comparison, Lilly has been raised to fear tigers, and has to work to overcome that before she can embrace that aspect of her personality. The two cases are quite different, but both are done well and add a lot to their respective stories. Not to mention, most children love animals and relate to them, themselves. I feel like these analogies will resonate with them.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Nice comparison between TIGER and FIGHTING WORDS, Aud. And makes me think again about A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, where the protagonist Sam, does not have the animal qualities.
    Instead it’s the people around her: abusers as foxes and protectors who don’t/can’t protect as squirrels…

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Sometimes when a character, especially a young character, shows awareness of her own emergence, it can feel a bit contrived. Like it’s the author putting words into the character’s mouth to articulate the themes. I felt just a bit of this with Lily. She describes how she feels when Rick gives her muffins: “I accept it, and warmth spreads up my fingertips and through my body. A small part of me perks up, smiles.” (285). That sounds like Lily. Then she adds: “…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.” There’s a jump there, from immediate response to a broader, thematic kind of statement…and it feels more like an author than Lily.
    There’s a similar bit earlier, when she’s talking with Sam: “I get that filled-up feeling. We are the sun and the moon, ready to be brave. And sometimes, believing is the bravest thing of all.” (258). It’s those “maybe’s..” and the “sometimes…” that jar just a bit from Sam’s otherwise consistently convincing voice. It is a nice touch, though, when she and Sam are heading to the hospital a few pages late and she repeats that same phrase about “believing…,” but this time out loud, to encourage Sam. (263)

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      “Sometimes when a character, especially a young character, shows awareness of her own emergence, it can feel a bit contrived. Like it’s the author putting words into the character’s mouth to articulate the themes.” It’s interesting to put this observation in terms of the character’s — in this case, Lilly’s –increasing self-awareness. I have struggled more than once with a character sounding more like the adult author than the child protagonist, but I haven’t thought of it as being associated with the character’s growth and change. This situation has raised the question for me of writing that may be beautiful and literary, but in the case of a first-person narrator — common among many of the books we are discussing — not true to the character’s abilities as a young person.

  8. The problem of a child narrator expressing an adult consciousness is pretty common. I have a kind of parallel question about Halmoni. Often there are certain types of grandparents in children’s novels and they can become stereotypes. Halmoni is wise, compassionate, better able to understand her granddaughter, in some ways, than her own daughter is. She is also a kind of bridge between a traditional culture and the modern reality in which the book is set. Her illness also adds an automatic dimension of comparison between a past which will be lost with her, and the present. Yet I found her a compelling character. How do you think the author accomplished this, creating a credible character who is easily identifiable in some ways, but not reducible to an archetype?

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