Author Interview and Book Review: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Please Note: I received an electronic review copy and was monetarily compensated in exchange for a book review and an interview with the author. I promise that this compensation in no way affected my opinions or review.

Title When You Trap A Tiger
Author Tae Keller
Pages 304 Pages
Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Fabulism
Publication Date January 28th 2020 by Random House Books For Young Readers
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book DepositoryBarnes & NobleIndieBound

FIVE STARRED REVIEWS! This uplifting story of a girl who discovers a secret family history when she makes a deal with the magical tiger from her grandmother’s stories brings Korean folklore to life.

Some stories refuse to stay bottled up…

When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni’s Korean folktales arrives, prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history. Long, long ago, Halmoni stole something from the tigers. Now they want it back. And when one of the tigers approaches Lily with a deal – return what her grandmother stole in exchange for Halmoni’s health – Lily is tempted to agree. But deals with tigers are never what they seem! With the help of her sister and her new friend Ricky, Lily must find her voice…and the courage to face a tiger.

Tae Keller, the award-winning author of The Science of Breakable Things, shares a sparkling tale about the power of stories and the magic of family. Think Walk Two Moons meets Where the Mountain Meets the Moon!

1. The act of storytelling and the power of the stories as a source of connection and comfort are central themes in When You Trap A Tiger. What stories, books and/or authors have you found empowering and have influenced your life in a positive way?

I still remember the feeling I had when I first learned to read on my own. Empowering is exactly the right word. I felt the rush of independence, being able to escape into story worlds all by myself.

And I remember feeling honored, in a sense, when I read powerful books. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I think I was reacting to the way masterful storytellers really trust their readers. Reading a novel is an act of collaboration; the writer crafts the story, and the reader brings it to life. I loved reading books by Lisa Yee, Kate Dicamillo, and Margaret Peterson Haddix because their trust felt like a gift.

2. When You Trap A Tiger is your second middle grade novel, following your debut, The Science of Breakable Things, which was published in 2018. What about writing for this particular age group do you find special and inspiring?

Science was the first time I’d ever attempted middle grade. Before that, I’d written all kinds of shelved YA stories — but my middle grade voice surprised me.

When I write YA, there’s a level of distance — I think because that’s how I felt as a teenager. I put up walls and boarded myself up from the world. In middle school, I hadn’t yet developed that armor. Everything was raw and immediate — the good and the bad, I felt it all so deeply. And because of that, I think my middle grade voice is more honest.

It’s often rewarding to return to that self, that girl who was not afraid to feel. It can be scary, too, to feel that vulnerable again, but I think that means I’m on the right track.

3. How did writing When You Trap A Tiger differ from (or align with) your experience writing The Science of Breakable Things?

With Science, I never expected my writing to be published. I wrote that book after I graduated college, partially in an attempt to distract myself from the job search. I never imagined that writing would become my job.

Writing Tiger was so much different because I was under contract for the story before I even began it. I knew for sure that people would read my next book. I was brainstorming with my publisher and visiting schools where I was meeting kid readers, and I felt a lot of pressure. I worried about disappointing all these people.

When I eventually learned to separate and silence all those pressures and outside voices, the writing processes were actually fairly similar. Both books went through about twenty drafts, both books had creative ups and downs, both books were simultaneously exhausting and rewarding.

At the end of the day, I write because I love storytelling and I love the creative challenge. I love learning about craft and improving as much as I can. But with Tiger I had to learn a whole new skill. I had to learn to compartmentalize.

4. Navigating mental health in a sensitive and empathetic manner seems to play a fundamental role in your writing, as you explored the topic of depression in The Science of Breakable Things and grief in When You Trap A Tiger. I wish these novels had been published when I was a child, as I have no doubt they would have provided me (and millions of other young readers) with a great deal of comfort and I’m so grateful they exist for young readers today. Why is the subject of mental health in particular so prevalent in and important for you to include in your work?

The thing I’m working toward, in any book, is always empathy — both promoting it to readers who may not relate to a character’s situation, and extending it to readers who do. In fiction, the reader steps so intimately into a character’s mind, and that creates a window into someone else’s world. It is an exercise in empathy. And especially with something like mental health, which is too often misunderstood, empathy is crucial.

For readers who can relate, I want my stories to say: You are not alone. Your feelings are not wrong; your feelings are human.

5. From the food the characters’ eat to the stories and traditions they share, Lily’s Korean heritage is lovingly and beautifully interwoven throughout When You Trap A Tiger. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to read your author’s note at the conclusion of the novel yet, can you share a little about how When You Trap A Tiger came to be and how your own history, heritage and research into Korean womanhood informed the novel?

I had written some of the opening chapters of Tiger right after I finished Science, but I set the story aside because I didn’t feel ready to write it. I was daunted by the idea of working on something that directly addressed my Korean identity, and I knew the story was ambitious; I didn’t think I had the skills to write it yet, and I didn’t think I understood my heritage well enough.

But I was haunted by this story; these mythical tigers wouldn’t leave me alone. So I decided to be a little creatively reckless, and I took the story off the shelf.

The truth was, I wasn’t ready to write it. Not at first. I had to learn a lot along the way, both in terms of craft and history. But the more I dove into my Korean history, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin. Reading through the past was hard at times — there was a lot of brutality during the Japanese occupation, and specifically with the comfort women during the war — but understanding the history of Korea gave me context for how I was raised. Learning those stories made me feel like a more whole version of myself, and so that idea became central to the novel: These painful stories are not always easy to tell, but we need to tell them in order to move forward, in order to heal, in order to be ourselves, fully and wholly.

6. Lily deals with a great deal of change over the course of When You Trap A Tiger as she struggles to cope with moving to a new state, making new friends, and her grandmother’s worsening illness. Is there any advice you could offer to young readers currently grappling with change, however small or large? Is there anything that has helped you better handle change in your own life?

I think adulthood is bittersweet because every adult knows that all things end. This can be comforting in a difficult life stage, it can be heartbreaking in a joyful one, and it can be terrifying, always, because you don’t often know when something will end, why, or what comes next.

And I think middle school is when a lot of kids realize this for the first time. Before that, childhood seems infinite. If you’re ten, one year is 10% of your life. That’s long. School years last forever.

But I think coming of age, at its core, is about understanding the idea of ending. It’s always a little scary, it’s often bittersweet, but we come out the other side.

7. Let’s have some fun! One of my favourite characters, Lily’s new friend, Ricky, texts her a list of his favourite foods to make Lily smile when she’s feeling down. What are some foods or dishes you couldn’t live without?

One of my favorite things about this book is that I got to include all my favorite foods! Naengmyeon, dukk, kimchi. These are the comfort foods I grew up on, and it was so gratifying to put them in a novel.

I’m also a sucker for popcorn. I’ll eat it plain or dressed up in any way, but my favorite is the way we eat it in Hawaii — with Nori shreds and mochi crunch.

8. At the outset of When You Trap A Tiger, Lily is shy and introverted and refers to her ability to become ‘invisible’ as her superpower. Her sister, Sam, often chastises Lily for being a ‘QAG’ (“Quiet Asian Girl”) and Sam actively works to disprove this stereotype by being as outspoken as possible. As someone who personally struggles with confrontation and asserting herself, Lily’s journey to become more confident, honest about her feelings and comfortable taking up space was inspiring and empowering for me. Can you speak a little about what inspired you to include this particular element of the story and what you hope readers will take away from Lily’s journey and the novel as a whole?

I’ve always been a quiet person, and for a much of my life, I felt like that was a big flaw in my personality. Every school year, I went home with report cards that said I needed to learn how to “speak up”, and I hated when my friends called me quiet. In high school, I learned to play the part of an extrovert to fit in, but it never felt natural to me. Because we live in a culture that values noise, it took me too long to realize that being quiet isn’t wrong.

When I wrote Lily’s character development, I wanted to show her growth, but I didn’t want her to fix her problems by becoming loud and outspoken. At the end of the novel, she is still a thoughtful, introverted person, but she learns to find confidence and strength in that.

“I am a girl who sees invisible things, but I am not invisible.”

Lily is so used to being ‘invisible’, she’s convinced it’s her super power. It’s especially difficult to speak up when her outspoken older sister, Sam, is doing enough talking for the both of them. (“What Sam doesn’t realize is that she’s already rocking our boat. If I rock it, too, the boat will flip. We’ll drown.”) It becomes difficult to remain quiet, however, when Lily, Sam and their mother move from California to Washington in order to live closer to Lily’s Halmoni (grandmother) to help care for her, and the girls struggle to adapt to a new town, make new friends, and cope with their grandmother’s failing health. It isn’t until the unexpected appearance of a giant, mysterious, talking tiger that only Lily can see and speak to that Lily is able to find her voice. Filled to the brim with Korean folktales, mystical creatures, stories hidden in the stars and much, much more, When You Trap A Tiger is a magical novel that demonstrates how powerful, comforting and inspiring middle grade literature can be.

I feel confident in saying that discovering the work of author Tae Keller will be one of the best things I do in 2020, and it’s only February. After reading (and falling in love with) the author’s debut novel, The Science of Breakable Things, at the beginning of the year, Penguin Random House was kind enough to approach me and ask if I would be interested in reading Keller’s January 2020 release, When You Trap A Tiger, and I couldn’t have been more excited!

One of the Tae Keller’s many strengths as a writer lies in her ability to address difficult topics in a sensitive, empathetic and accessible way. In her debut novel, The Science of Breakable Things, the novel’s protagonist, Natalie, attempts to better connect with her botanist mother and understand her mother’s chronic depression through an exploration of the scientific process. In When You Trap A Tiger, Lily uses her grandmother’s familiar Korean folktales to re-connect with her older sister and parse the trauma and grief she is experiencing because of both the death of her father when she was a child and her grandmother’s worsening cancer and eventual death. Despite the seriousness of the aforementioned topics, however, Keller’s work is never lacking in hope or sensitivity. Keller uses stories and the act of storytelling as a way for Lily to navigate and make sense of immense change, and in doing so teaches young readers that while change and even endings are inevitable, they are by no means something to fear. (“I don’t yet know the ending, but I will face my story as it changes and grows. Because of Halmoni, I can be brave. I can be anything.”)

Stories also form the basis for Lily’s growing understanding of her grandmother’s past as well as a growing understanding of her Korean ancestry. It becomes clear that Halmoni is reluctant to speak about her past, and she admits to Lily that while the stories she shares with her granddaughters are always positive and end happily, there are other stories she’s reluctant to share because “Some stories are too dangerous to tell. (…) Sometime, they make people feed bad and act bad. Some of those stories make me feel sad and small.” Halmoni tells Lily that she ‘stole’ a number of these stories and hid them away, hoping to free herself and others from the sadness and anger they inspired. Unbeknownst to her Halmoni, Lily comes to believe it is these stories that the mysterious tiger is hunting, and it is only through telling these hidden, ‘stolen’ stories that her grandmother will truly be set free. (“Maybe keeping those stories secret is a bad thing. Because all those things still happened, even if you don’t talk about it. And hiding it doesn’t erase the past – it only bottles it up.”) What Lily, and the reader, ultimately learn is that stories have the power to connect, preserve and immortalize, and it is through these stories, tradition and memory that those we love are able to live forever.

There’s so much to love about When You Trap A Tiger, I can’t help but worry that a review will never truly do it justice. Keller’s writing is exquisite, managing to be both profound and beguiling while remaining approachable and easy to understand. The warmth and depth of the personal connections the author draws, whether it be Lily’s loving relationship with her grandmother, her strained disconnection (and reconnection) with her older sister, Sam, or burgeoning friendship with the talkative and inquisitive Ricky, Keller emphasizes the beauty of both biological and found family. The characterization is strong, particularly in the case of Lily, who is a quiet, introverted girl who learns over the course of the novel that you don’t have to speak the loudest or the most to speak volumes.

Compassionate, uplifting, and full of heart, When You Trap A Tiger would make a valuable addition to any library, classroom or personal collection and would be a particular gift and comfort to readers struggling with grief and loss. I’m thrilled I was introduced to Tae Keller’s work this year, and even more thankful that young readers everywhere have her empathy and eloquence to guide them.

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!