From the first pages of Tae Keller's debut The Science of Breakable Things, I knew she was a force. Some authors need no grace period; they seem to arrive on the scene fully formed. Tae Keller feels like one of those writers. She would humbly disagree, I'm sure, but I think I'd win that argument. Her second book, When You Trap a Tiger, has already been much-buzzed about and will likely get a fair amount of attention in the Newbery committee decision-making process. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to share a few questions with her, and to now be able to share her thoughtful and heart-filled responses here.
SBW: Family - the people who know us the best, love us the most, and have the capacity to hurt us the worst. It’s certainly not abnormal to feature family relationships in stories for young readers, but your stories have a special tenderness, a unique awareness of those vital ties. How do your families come to life in your mind? Do you start with a main character and then develop her family around her, or does the family come as a set, so to speak?
TK: This is such a good question, and one I’ve never gotten! I usually start with the main character’s voice. I may not know much about them—I won’t know what they look like or what their specific character traits are, but before I start, I have to know how they think. I have to know the rhythm of their internal dialogue in order to write them.
But after that, I tend to build my primary characters as a set. As in real life, a character is affected by their closest relationships, so knowing how families play off each other is key. And it’s always useful in stories to have opposites. I played with conflicting personalities in When You Trap a Tiger, which made the family dynamics fun to write.
SBW: In When You Trap a Tiger, there are three generations of women, speaking life and love into each other’s experiences every day. That kind of intergenerational household is increasingly uncommon in the United States. What do you think we are missing by relinquishing the day-to-day interactions with our elders?
TK: The stories! My halmoni will drop anecdotes about her life throughout the day. She’s never told us her life story in full, so we’ve gathered it in pieces, scattered over the years throughout meals and commercial breaks and in the quiet hours before bed.
SBW: The Korean folktales woven throughout When You Trap a Tiger could almost be a character of their own. The pairing of folktales with contemporary fiction works beautifully, and I wonder if you could explain how you came to the decision to employ them in this story?
TK: Much of this book is about the relationship between Lily and her halmoni, with Lily learning her halmoni’s history. At the heart of it, that’s a contemporary story—a girl discovers who her grandmother is as a person, beyond the familial role of “grandmother”—but it felt natural to include folktales and a hint of magic, because those stories are the primary way Lily connects with and comes to understand her halmoni. In a sense, that’s always what we’re doing with stories; we’re using them as a safe way to understand our own life and the people in it.
As for the specifics, I knew I wanted to use the Korean folktale of the sun and the moon, because that is the story I loved most growing up. This is the first story in the book, of a trickster tiger, somewhat similar to the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
As the novel progresses, Lily hears other tales, which she calls “star jar” stories. Originally, I’d planned for these to be traditional Korean folktales as well. But as the writing process went on, the star jar stories transformed. By the time I finished the book, those stories were very much my own. They needed to be, in order to parallel what Lily was feeling—and in order to comment on the process of storytelling, as well as critique some of the patriarchal elements of traditional fairy and folk tales. The star jar stories still have references to traditional Korean folktales, and I wanted to capture the structure and feeling of fairytales, but they became something new.
SBW: In The Science of Breakable Things, your main character Natalie is working through the difficulties surrounding her mother’s depression; in When You Trap a Tiger, the main character Lily has to deal with grief over multiple losses. The representation of these hard subjects is critical for young readers who may be experiencing them as well, but I would argue they are just as important for those readers who have not yet had to suffer such difficulties. Would you agree?
TK: As a reader, there are two kinds of comfort I’ve found in books. There’s the comfort of knowing I’m not alone in the things I’ve experienced, and there’s the comfort of illuminating the things I have not experienced, the things that feel impossibly, unknowably scary.
When we have deep fears, such as losing someone we love, books can show us that our biggest fears are valid, but they are not the end of the world. We can survive them.
SBW: Perhaps my favorite passage in When You Trap a Tiger is the exchange between Lily and Ricky about heroes. Ricky insists heroes are still scared, still trying to figure it all out, and when Lily asks what they do then, he replies, “They save the world anyway, even though they’re not ready.” Why do you think Lily needed to hear this then? Why do we all need to?
TK: There’s never a perfect time to become who we want to be. We’re never going to feel fully ready. But we need to take those steps and do the work anyway.
SBW: I love the little references to the beloved children’s books throughout When You Trap a Tiger. Why those titles? Are they special to you?
TK: Like a lot of kids, I loved those books growing up. I wove those references into the star jar stories because I wanted to reflect the Asian American experience of having all your cultural stories blended into one narrative. Asian folklore is part of our childhood, as are our beloved American picture books.
SBW: In a former life as a school librarian, part of my job was to coordinate the summer reading program, and I loved it. In particular, I relished the opportunity to find contemporary, engaging books that young readers will love AND that teachers will see as “educational.” For me, The Science of Breakable Things was the ideal book! By building the narrative around the Scientific Method, you gave me the perfect in with my science teachers. It’s pretty easy to find a novel that works with social studies or history themes. But math and science are so much harder to "fit" naturally in contemporary fiction. Usually, those subjects feel artificially shoe-horned into a narrative, but not so with your book. How did you decide on that structure and theme as a unifying element?
TK: The idea of the book came while I was looking through my middle school notebooks. I found my science notebook, where I had written an experiment debrief about our frog dissection. I’d written it as if it were a short story, about me and my friends and the frog we desperately had to save. The idea of a girl using her science notebook as a pseudo-diary blossomed from there.
There’s a great tradition of epistolary novels, so I knew I had a solid spine to work with, but I wanted the science element to feel as authentic as possible, so I bought a couple seventh grade science textbooks and relearned the lessons. That gave me the structure to build a somewhat plausible lesson plan for Natalie’s science class.
SBW: Also, there are footnotes! In a Middle Grades book! But they aren’t dry or dusty information footnotes. Were you afraid the footnotes might turn readers off? (FYI: They do not. At all.)
TK: Thanks for saying that! The footnotes were so much fun to write. The first time I encountered footnotes that I really loved was in Mary Roach’s adult nonfiction. She’s a science writer, so she uses footnotes to convey additional scientific information, but she also uses them to insert funny personal anecdotes and jokes. I thought it worked so well, and it expanded my idea of what footnotes could do.
SBW: In both your novels, the main characters wrestle with their Korean heritage - they are both Korean and not-Korean in many different ways. Regardless of the background of the reader, this wrestle feels familiar. It’s like what everyone goes through as they make their way through adolescence and the identity questions that occur then. But it’s also not like that. Would you discuss the similarities and the differences for your characters?
TK: 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.
SBW: I’m a strong believer in hope as a driving force - in life and in story. Though your novels address real darkness and hurt, they are covered over with hope. Why do you think we crave those hopeful narratives so?
TK: That’s something I love so much about middle grade. No matter how dark the story, it always ends with hope. When I write, I’m usually trying to work through a fear of mine. I’m writing about something that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m writing, in many ways, to tell myself that everything is going to be okay. I am writing, always, toward hope.
SBW: I’m going to just close with the last lines of The Science of Breakable Things. I love them, and I’d love it if you responded to them.
“Because science is asking questions. And living is not being afraid of the answer.”
TK: In hindsight, most of what I’ve written has become a caffeinated blur, but I remember writing those two lines. I was on deadline, the book needed to go to copyedits, and this was the last time I could make changes to the manuscript. The ending wasn’t working, and I went through so many iterations until I finally landed on those lines.
Everything clicked together as soon as I wrote them, and I knew that was it. Those are my favorite writing moments, when a story feels impossible until you find that one right sentence, and then everything makes sense.
And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:
Who are your heroes?
I admire anyone who has found power in their voice. What an incredible thing, to change the world with words.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
Who/what are you reading these days?
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
I’m a big fan of movies, and I’m that nerd who will analyze them for hours.
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
Empathy above all else.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I cycled through many dreams: artist, rock star, macaroni noodle. But primarily, I wanted to be an author. My mom is an author as well, so I would sit next to her while she wrote and pretend to pen my own masterpieces.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
I love slow days, where nothing feels urgent. My favorite days are the ones where I wake up early and have a luxurious stretch of hours to write, read, and walk through my neighborhood.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
What is one thing you hope for?
It’s 2020 and this year I’m hoping for a great deal of things. On a large scale, I’m hoping for health and justice and peace. And I’m hoping that we do not lose hope.
SBW: That's a hope we can all agree on! Thank you to Tae Keller for her time, her vision, her heart, and her words. It really is quite an incredible thing: "to change the world with words."
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