Lily, her older sister Samantha, and their mother have left California to live with Halmoni (grandmother), which Sam resents and Lily quietly accepts. But as they arrive, Lily begins to see something nobody else does – a tiger who can talk and walk through buildings and strike bargains, who wants something from her family.
I had gotten this book, read and enjoyed it, started a review, and was in my second reading when… it won the Newberry. All of a sudden everyone was reading and reviewing it! I frequently am surprised by, or disagree with, the Newberry awards – but it isn’t often my reaction is disbelief that others chose a book I personally loved.
After it won, what I had been writing to try and convince people to read this didn’t make sense any more. People read Newberry books for decades even if they aren’t very good. So I sat on this post for months, unconvinced my review would be useful. After a book gets popular, ownvoice reviewers typically speak to specific strengths and weaknesses better than I possibly could.
As you can guess by the post you’re currently reading, I eventually decided to finish the review. Partly in order to add this to my next diverse MG fantasy recommendation list, partly because the work was already begun, and partly because diverse middle grade fantasy is one of my interests. Since much of the review had to be scrapped to fit the changing circumstances, it left some wordcount free for me to explain.
Now back to the book, a gorgeous story that will resonate with introverted fantasy lovers. It feels weird to call something set in the suburbs an urban fantasy, but this is an unusual read on several counts. Keller has created a unique blend of multiple subgenres of speculative fiction.
While Lily and her family are fully American, their Korean heritage is sprinkled throughout. I especially loved the use of Korean words for family relationships as they are so much more detailed than English descriptors. This was a reverse of Jenny Han‘s Lara Jean – instead of being raised in a mostly white environment, Lily is surrounded by Korean culture. We don’t even find out that her deceased father was white until page 163.
Her grandmother’s town is predominately white, but that’s called out. Her family laughs about the Asian restaurant and white people are described as much as non-white characters. She is aware of whiteness, but grounded in her Korean family. I actually appreciated this perspective even more than the fantasy aspects of this novel, and that’s saying a lot!
This story utilizes magical realism with just a touch of fantasy, and I found Keller’s methods of incorporating different storytelling devices fascinating on a technical level and effective as a reader. The way in which she uses a Latine fantasy genre to tell a deeply Korean story within a white American setting is both masterful, and a potential look at what the future of MG fantasy could hold.
This particular book is universal in its specificity, utilizing techniques from different genres with characters firmly grounded in their own identity having experiences and feeling emotions that are relatable across humankind. All of which can probably be summarized by saying – I heartily agree that this book is worthy of notice.
The content warnings do include some spoilers, which I will limit to the next two paragraphs. Halmoni is slowly dying of a cancerous brain tumor. Characters break in to a house and library, sneak around at night, and hide things from each other. Hallucinations and mental illness briefly come up – generally not too poorly treated but I did wish explanation had been included of what steps to take next if someone does see or hear things not to be there. While that might have ruined the magic, it certainly could have been included in an author’s note or other back matter. Although it’s not common, I have had students at this age who were having visual or auditory hallucinations.
Indeed, these felt a lot like a representation of Lily’s anxiety, and that’s ultimately how I personally read this element of the text. There is a minor LGBTQ subplot – Sam has a girlfriend and Lily is mostly oblivious until she sees them snuggle and realizes that they are a couple. That realization is four paragraphs near the end of the book, and all the rest is fairly ambiguous (honestly in between reads I forgot that even happened), so I wouldn’t consider it especially diverse in that aspect.
Magical realism as a whole tends to be polarizing, and I have rarely met other fantasy fans who share my lukewarm feelings about the technique. Because this book won the Newberry, many people are going to read it, and some are bound to hate it. In particular, whenever genre fiction, or lately diverse books, win they tend to be subject to much more vehement and intense criticism. I doubt this book will have universal appeal, but When You Trap a Tiger does have crossover potential for fantasy fans who don’t mind some gritty realism or contemporary fiction readers okay with mystique. Recommended.