Book Review: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Review by: Shelby Dale DeWeese

What would you do if you met a magical tiger?

This is the situation that 12-year-old Lily finds herself in when she, her mother, and her sister Sam move from California to Washington state to live with Lily’s sick halmoni (grandmother). When they arrive in Washington, a magical tiger straight out of Halmoni’s Korean folk tales shows up to strike up a deal with Lily, but the stakes are high. Halmoni has been bottling up the hard stories of her past to stave off sadness, but now Halmoni is very sick, and the tiger will only heal her if Lily releases the bottled stories. When time begins to run out, Lily and Sam have to challenge themselves, find the tiger, and make a difficult decision. 

At the start of the novel, Lily is what Sam calls a “QAG,” or a “Quiet Asian Girl.” Lily is so quiet and shy that she often feels invisible. Once, at the end of fourth grade, a boy in her class asked her, “Where did you come from? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.” Sam is furious that their mother made them, so she’s agitated that Lily doesn’t share her anger and is just being a “QAG” as usual. But now that there’s a magical tiger in the mix, Lily must put herself out there. She makes friends at the local library as part of her search for information on tigers and Korean folklore, and she makes a bold decision about how to respond to the tiger.

When You Trap a Tiger weaves together realism and supernatural elements beautifully and succeeds as a moving and engaging novel. Lily finds her agency and voice by reconnecting with her halmoni and her Korean culture. Near the novel’s end, Lily begins to understand how the bottled-up folk stories have changed her, and how they might save her family in ways she didn’t expect. Maybe Lily is not as invisible as she thought.

Shelby Dale DeWeese (she/her/hers) is a writer and educator currently pursuing her M.Ed. and Initial Teaching License in English/Language Arts. She lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and their two rabbits, Beatrice and Ramona. 

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