When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller – Book Review

  • Title: When You Trap a Tiger
  • Author: Tae Keller
  • Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: January 28, 2020


Lily’s grandmother, her halmoni, is gravely ill. When Lily’s mother moves the family back to Sunbeam, Washington to live with Halmoni, the reality of her grandmother’s illness thrusts Lily into the magical world of Korean folklore. Once a world of love, laughter, and fond memories, Lily finds herself facing off with a magical tiger in an attempt to appease the creature and save her grandmother. As Halmoni’s condition worsens, Lily’s desperation leads her farther into the magical realm of Korean folklore, helping her navigate through her feelings of grief and helplessness along the way. Ultimately, Lily’s discoveries, including a new friend and finding the depth of her own courage, bring peace and healing in unexpected, magical ways.

Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger is a poignant look at Lily’s struggles: grieving over Halmoni’s illness, accepting her changed relationship with her sister, and finding her own voice and courage through the stories she experiences and eventually creates. It is a complex time in Lily’s life, and the narrative reflects this complexity as the magical world created in the novel enmeshes itself with the grounded reality depicted in the novel. At times, these dueling narrative threads can confuse readers as to which world they are in – the magical or the real. While this narrative choice may accurately reflect the confusion Lily faces during this difficult time, it occasionally detracts from the other literary elements that bring Lily’s story to life. Keller creates dynamic characters that will stay with readers long after they finish the novel, a significant accomplishment. The author skillfully develops these characters in subtle ways that create intrigue and investment so much so that many readers will be left with a yearning to learn more about them, and in particular, Halmoni. 

When You Trap a Tiger will have many fans, especially those of magical realism. Readers can easily get lost in Lily’s tales but will need to do plenty of rereading to parse out the novel’s complexities. The book would be a fantastic addition to middle grades classrooms implementing literature circles with novels that incorporate folktales. However, other class applications are fairly limited. Still, it is another diverse voice to add to the collection of #ownvoices literature for our young people. 

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of the history of Korea or a study of Korean folktales.
  • Literature Circles – Use novel for small groups or choice reading with a variety of books that include folktales from around the world.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading novels that incorporate folktales.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • History of Korean Peninsula
  • Emigration from Korea to the U.S.
  • Korean folktales

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with When You Trap a Tiger. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (Character Connections, Themes, Plot Structure)
  • Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (Character Connections, Themes, Plot Structure)
  • Hello, Universe or Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly (Themes, Plot Structure)
  • Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo (Character Connections, Themes, Plot Structure)


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