2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 2021 recipient: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller.
2020 involved a lot of difficult things, and besides our shared grief over our collective losses, everyone experienced some degree of disruption to their ordinary. For authors bringing books into the world during this unsettled time, the ordinary things (book tours, conferences, school events) were not just disrupted; they had to be set aside. Despite those difficulties, 2020 offered a remarkable crop of Newbery contenders, culminating in these 2021 honorees.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House) Honor Books:
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick)
BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood (Candlewick)
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial)
We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins)
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick)
Members of 2021 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Dr. Jonda C. McNair; Sarah Bean Thompson; Elizabeth A. Burns; Timothy D. Capehart; Arika J. Dickens; Joanna K. Fabicon; Hyunjin Han; Susan Dove Lempke; Maren C. Ostergard; Dr. Linda M. Pavonetti; David C. Saia; Jo Phillips Schofield; Eva Thaler-Sroussi; Lisa M. Thomas; Alicia S.Q. Yao; and Award Administrative Assistant Gretchen Schulz.
As demonstrated by the number of honor titles (and by the number of titles absent here but celebrated in kidlit circles far and wide), this year was not an automatic decision. Some years, the consensus around the winner develops early and relatively easily. In years like this one, the discussion around distinction and merit and audience can make consensus feel impossible. For instance, while many felt Fighting Words was the most distinguished title of the year, many others (myself included) worried that its graphic content created significant audience issues and raised questions around the "stamp of approval" that the Newbery Medal implies. Should families and schools have to "protect" young readers from a medal-winner that discusses sexual abuse? Does the committee have a responsibility to consider how the medal will affect its reception in the world?
As I read along in 2020, When You Trap a Tiger became for me an early favorite (along with NBA winner King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender). Like Jacob Have I Loved, this book features sisters and a grandmother, but in Keller's rendition, the grandmother is a beloved fount of Korean folklore not a scripture-spitting grump. Lily's halmoni is the heart of this story of family and loss, and the way Keller weaves Halmoni's tales into her contemporary narrative feels effortless despite the considerable skill it demands.
Here's an excerpt from my original review:
Halmoni's stories have secrets within them because, as she says, "Some stories too dangerous to tell." When Lily wonders how stories can be dangerous, Halmoni explains, "Sometime, they make people feel bad and act bad. Some of those stories make me feel sad and small." She goes on, "I hear my halmoni cry when she tell me sad stories, our Korean history. I see my neighbors get scare. My friends get angry. And I think: Why do we have to hear bad stories? Isn't it better if bad stories just go 'way?"
From there, Halmoni's story unfolds, and as Lily begins to understand how sick her grandmother is, she is determined to find a cure. Even if it means facing down a tiger. Lily has spent her life being the quiet one, the shy one - never the hero. But she knows she has to try. And once she meets the tiger, everything gets muddled. The tiger insists there is power in the stories, "Open the jars, listen to a story, heal your halmoni. That is painfully reasonable."
So Lily listens. But when her halmoni does not get better, she confronts the tiger: "How is this story going to cure my halmoni?" And the tiger replies:
"A cure is not about what we want. It's about what we need. The same is true for stories."
Ultimately, unavoidably, Lily realizes that not all stories have a happy ending, that the cure may not always look like we imagine; however, she also learns there is something in every story, something of worth, something of power, something of belonging. And along the way, she makes a new friend, restores her bond with her sister, and recognizes a new and unfamiliar strength in herself. The stories have changed her.
For more from Keller, read this interview where she explores complex questions of family and stories, and this profound and increasingly relevant commentary on identity:
Everybody’s journey to understanding and inhabiting their identities is a little different, but I think we can all relate to the process of figuring out who we are.
For me, the specificity of being Korean American, and being biracial Korean American, is bridging separate heritages within myself. It’s having a mish-mash of references and not always knowing which culture certain references came from. It’s both the pain of not knowing my grandmother’s native language, and the joy of having a global family.
But the thing about my experience of identity—and of anybody’s experience—is that it’s too vast to contain in one book. When I’m writing a character, I’m writing just one slice of identity, in one moment in time. I draw on my own feelings, but they aren’t my feelings. I’m always trying to interpret these big questions through the lens of my characters—how would they see the world based on their context?
Hopefully readers feel seen when they find similarities in my books. And hopefully the differences provide an entry point for them to think about their own identity and how it diverges from the narrative.
In many ways, Keller's award-winning book is the perfect reflection of today's Newbery, combining a complex and nuanced experience with identity with the power of stories to change us and change the world. Critics of the decision might argue it was the "safe" choice, but I cannot disagree with the honors it has earned.