When someone you love is sick, you would move heaven and earth to make it better. Treatment, recovery, remission - these are all hopeful words. The most hopeful of all, the word we yearn to hear, is cure. To be cured is to be free - free of the treatments, free of pain, free of worry and anxiety and uncertainty. As Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger, opens, Lily and her older sister Sam don't know yet that their grandmother - their Halmoni - is sick. They only know that their mom has uprooted them from their sunny California home and moved to the ironically-named town of Sunbeam, where Halmoni lives and where rain is a constant threat. They don't yet know that Halmoni needs their help; they don't yet know they are hoping for a cure.
The girls (and their mom) had lived in Sunbeam with their Korean grandmother once before, after their dad died in a car accident. And even after they moved away, Halmoni's stories and spirit continued to be infused into their lives, especially the story of the tiger:
"Halmoni," I'd whisper, "will you tell us a story?"
She would smile, pulling us into her arms and her imagination. "Why story?"
Our answer was always the same. Our favorite story.
"The one about Unya," Sam would say. Big sister.
"And Eggi," I would add. Baby sister. "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 the stars.
That's a Halmoni thing, pretending there are stories hidden in the stars.
She would wait a few moments, letting the seconds swell, and we'd listen to our hearts
beating, crying out for the story. Then she'd take a breath and tell us about the tiger.
This traditional Korean folktale weaves its way through the novel just as it has woven its way through the lives of Lily and Sam. And just as that passage promises, there are secrets shimmering there, as well as stories hidden in the stars.
Halmoni is a vivid, beautifully-drawn, and easy-to-love character. She is universally appreciated in her small, rainy town, in part because of her work as an alternative healer and in part because she is warm and lovely and full of positive energy. Underneath that positive energy, however, Halmoni worries about the dangers facing her, her daughter, and her granddaughters. Part of the legacy of her stories is a warning against dangers, and she uses Korean practices, like setting out kosa for the spirits, to ward off dangers.
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.
Perhaps my favorite part of this novel is an exchange between Lily and her friend Ricky. Lily wonders if Ricky has ever felt like "you don't know who you're supposed to be anymore. And you want to figure out who you really are but you don't know how -- and you're scared that you won't like the answer." Ricky doesn't really know, but he recognizes that kind of struggle from the comic books he loves. He says, "The hero is just a regular person, until suddenly the world needs them. And they have powers and a cool suit, but underneath it all, they're still trying to figure it out. They're still scared." When Lily asks what they do then, he responds:
"They save the world anyway, even though they're not ready. And they get stronger, and they learn who they are as they go along."
I love that so much. They save the world anyway. There may not be a cure, the stories may not have a happy ending, but we're all just trying to learn who we are as we go along. And Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger is there to help us - even those of us who don't have a halmoni, even those who don't yet know where we are heading.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: The unique structure, the infusion of the Korean folktales, and the familiar struggles of family and adolescence will make this a strong contender.
Previous titles under consideration: