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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER by Tae Keller

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Barbara Rohrer:

WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER is a coming-of-age story for middle-school readers, but so much more: Tweens, teens, and a great many adults will connect with Tae Keller’s cadre of inimitable characters and the many anguishes of puberty, racism, and generational watersheds. Protagonist Lily and her three-generation, Korean-American family face so many crises in the span of 46 chapters, in fact, that some readers may feel overwhelmed:

Racism. Loneliness. Death. Grief. Pain. Misogyny. Puberty. Young adulthood. Middle age. Old age. Discrimination. Identity. LGBTQ+ issues. Courage. Cowardice. Theft. Loss of innocence. Cancer. Fear. Alzheimer’s disease. Shame. Truth. Deception. Displacement. Toxic secrets. Curses.

While Lily ultimately does not resolve all the problems in her personal life or her community—a strong note of healthy realism for young readers—she does kick a lot of butt by using her highly developed cognitive, emotional, and supernatural skills. At times, she doesn’t feel real; for example, Lily analyzes her older sister’s coping technique with the skill of a therapist:

Sam doesn’t end conversations anymore. She just escapes them. (143)

Sensation might alienate some readers whose bars for fictional realism are set a bit low. Still, Lily’s family members, antagonists, and new friends are sharply drawn, particularly her grandmother, Halmoni. Strangely, readers do not learn how to pronounce that Korean word until Chapter 34:

“It’s hall-moe-knee, not harmony.” (232)

Perhaps the best qualities of the book are Keller’s magical command of literary devices, voice, and revisionist Korean folktales. Language arts teachers will adore using WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER to teach anthropomorphism, simile, metaphor, foreshadowing, onomatopoeia, and invention.  Consider:

Halmoni’s house looks like a memory. The living room and kitchen cuddle together around a purple dining table and a fireplace that doesn’t work. An old grandfather clock tuts in the far corner of the living room. On the mantel, two stone lions hug a photograph of Mom, welcoming wealth into her life. On the other side, a frog guards a photo of Sam and me, protecting our happiness. (16)

Shattering against the wall, the blue jar becomes a supernova. (249)

 “Lily Bean, if you return those stories to me, your halmoni will feel better. If they stay locked away, they will make her sick. They will”—her teeth flash—“eat her up.” (98)

 “Skritching” (Author’s note, 289)

One of Keller’s most beautiful bits of invention is star jars. Lily realizes her Halmoni’s most painful, most secret story has been hidden away in a glass jar:               

The starlight in the jar seems to spill out, a whole Milky Way tipping over the edge, and the tiger moves closer. She closes her eyes, presses her whiskers against the rim—and drinks the stars.

 … I can almost hear the roar of an ocean. I can almost taste the scent of the sea. As the tiger drinks, the glass in my hand gets lighter and lighter until it feels like air. And when she finishes, she steps back, smacking her lips.

“Ah,” she says. “I have missed that one.” (150)

The story ends with Lily’s realization that identity is an evolving process of…

…learning who you are, even in not-you situations. I’ve been doing that, pushing back the edges of me—trying to find the borders—and I’m realizing that I’m so much more than I thought. Right now, I feel infinite. (285)

Who wouldn’t want that heady sense of infinity? Readers who wholly invest in Lily’s story will stroke the last page and think of trapping their own tigers.

NOTE: Readers, educators, and librarians also will find lovely gems in Teller’s mythology guide and author’s note, found on her website under “For Educators” (

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. I love this book and agree with Barbara that language and mood are Tae Keller’s superpower. And friendship. I haven’t revisited this one recently, but when I first read it, I loved the way Lily’s friendship with Ricky unfolds. Oh, and of course, FAMILY! The love and tension of a family always shines in Keller’s hands. This is another one, though, that was right near the top of my list until a few weeks ago, and now, things have gotten all muddled. I probably should reread before our discussion.

  2. Meredith Burton says:

    Tae Keller writes with honesty and beauty. I, too, lovedepition of friendship and the family tension. I especially loved how the Sam, the elder sister, wanted so badly to believe in her Halmoni’s magic, (illustrated when she scattered the rice under the full moon to ward off evil spirits). The depiction of Keeping Kosa and other customs was so interesting. I also loved the exploration of our demure sides compared to our tiger halves. The feminist exploration of having to be a certain way and to ignore parts of ourselves was beautifully conveyed. The scene where Lily puts mud in Ricky’s pudding was vivid.

    I know we are not supposed to do negative comments yet, but I don’t know if this comment would fall into that category or not. I simply want to say that out of the magical realism books in our discussion, I did feel that A Game of FOx &n Squirrels was more effective. I have read both Keller’s and Reese’s books three times, (to insure I was being fair to both of them). agafas simply grabbed me more. When comparing the tiger goddess and Ashander, I never felt that the tiger was particularlyn frightening or wild. I suppose she reminded me a bit of Aslan in the Narnia books; a benevolent helper. We see Aslan’s dangerous side in THe HOrse in His Boy, but I never felt that the tiger goddess woul have hurt anyoneone.
    Comparing this to Ashander’s character is, perhaps, unfair, but we are supposed to be choosing most distinguished titles, and I just felt that regarding the treatment of animals in fantasy titles, agafas was more authentic. Ashander is a fox in all his slyness, charm and menacing, predatory actions. I know Reese was going for tradition and portraying teh fox that is shown in folklore, but she does this exceptionally well. So, of these two books, I know which one I will choose.

    Aslo, I did fell that When You Trap a TIger dragged a bit in places. Perhaps this one was a bit hard for me because it hits very close to home. My own grandmother is very ill, so I did have trouble in places. I suppose that’s the mark of a truly gifted author, though. You become immersed in their world.

  3. Meredith, I also liked this book very much. Thank you for acknowledging the personal element. I would agree that the magical realist parts in the book may have been flawed, but I was drawn to the character of the grandmother. She was an original, not in any way a stereotype of either a wise or befuddled old person. I became totally engaged in reading about her. This is, of course, apart from other aspects of the book, although you can’t separate the Korean cultural component, which other readers may have responded to quite differently. I am so sorry to hear that your grandmother is not well. Again, one of the reasons I liked the book was the way the author evoked the intensity of Lily’s attachment to her grandmother.

  4. Meredith Burton says:

    Hello, Emily.
    Yes, the relationship Lily has with her Halmoni is wonderful. I love the way the Halmoni “catches” stories. Thanks so much for your kind comments regarding my grandmother. Her situation is different, (as in she has Alzheimer’s and not brain cancer), but it is still hard to witness the bad days. That’s why good days are such a blessing. I did think the character relationships were very well done.

  5. Emily Mroczek says:

    As Barbara mentions in her introduction, there are a lot of themes in this book but I don’t think it gets too messy, I think it’s one of the main strengths. The theme of family relationships stands out the most to me and I think sticks out in every word.