When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (book review)
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy LENGTH: 287 pages PLOT Lily, her mom, and her sister move in with her ailing Halmoni (grandmother). Her Halmoni is being sickened by a magical tiger because she stole the tiger's stories. Lily must trap the tiger in order to save her Halmoni.
Lily considers herself an invisible girl but throughout her journey of trying to save her grandmother she discovers her bravery. She has some angry outbursts but they are a result of her desperation to save her ailing grandmother. They read as very realistic to someone experiencing this hopeful yet hopeless situation.
Sam is Lily's big sister and unlike Lily she can't see the magical tiger. Like so many siblings the two were once extremely close but have grown apart over the years. That rift between the sisters persists throughout most of this novel. Even still, the love between them is evident even as they struggle to understand one another. Again, this read as a very authentic relationship.
Ricky is Lily's best friend and he is enthusiastic and energetic. He is Lily's main support in the novel. Though both fumble with Lily being impatient and Ricky insensitive at times, I liked their friendship. It was something Lily really needed and Ricky gave an otherwise sad story a little serotonin boost.
The true heart of this story is Lily's relationship with her Halmoni (grandma). I lost my grandma in 2016 and, much like Lily's grandma, mine's death was not swift or unexpected but still devastating all the same. Lily's traditions with her grandma and the warmth she associates with her grandma's house, as well as bearing witness to her grandma's decline, all resonated deeply with me. I found myself tearing up at multiple points in the novel. Halmoni is wise and loving. I believe anyone who has been lucky enough to have had a close relationship with their grandma will find this book to be an emotional journey.
NARRATIVE STYLE/PACING The novel is told from the first person perspective of Lily. The novel, of course, incorporates Korean culture including mythology, some language/words and foods. I am a self proclaimed fairy tale fanatic. I personally enjoy learning about other cultures' fairy tales/mythology through books like this that adapt and add to them. I think it's such a fun, engaging way to learn about a culture and their stories. I also liked how the theme/lesson of the fairy tales played into/matched the novel's plot.
Something I noticed was that there were a couple of key scenes which highlight the western lens through which many tend to view the world. There is one scene where a librarian compares a Korean fairy tale to Little Red Riding Hood. There is yet another where Lily's new friends refer to her Halmoni has a witch for her beliefs. These scenes really stood out to me because they show how harmful our ignorance can be to those who hail from other cultures with which we may be unfamiliar. Scenes like these in novels can serve as lessons for us to be more open minded and willing to learn. That makes me especially happy that this book is targeted at a young demographic because hopefully those who read it will take something important away from it.
The novel is quite short but that doesn't take away from its emotional impact. It never felt like Lily's character growth was sacrificed for the short length, either. The only thing I would have liked more of was backstory of the relationship between Lily and her sister and why they grew apart. The story has, in my humble opinion, one of the most perfect endings I've read in a lot time.
I don't cry often while reading books but I found myself tearing up towards the end of this one. The love between a grandmother and a granddaughter is one that transcends culture. That loss is one you heal from but the ache always remains. Fantasy is my favorite genre and I generally gravitate more towards novels set in fantasy/alternate worlds. However, there is something equally as enchanting and mesmerizing about an author who uses fantasy and mythological elements and puts them in a real world setting. I especially feel this way when they are so intricately interwoven into the story being told as they are here.
FINAL RATING: 4.75⭐️