Magic and Korean folklore is woven through every page of Tae Keller’s When You Trap A Tiger, a heartfelt coming-of-age story about family and loss.
“Sometimes, the strongest thing is to stop running. To say, I am not afraid of tigers. I am not afraid to die.”
Lily’s glamorous, eccentric halmoni (Korean for grandmother) always warned her not to listen to tigers. In all the stories that Halmoni told, tigers were always cunning and deceitful. But now Halmoni is sick, and a magical tiger has appeared with an enticing offer: she will help Halmoni if Lily gives back the stories that Halmoni stole long ago. The stories are stars that Halmoni picked from the night sky and locked in a jar—and now the tigers want them back.
Stories have power. The stories we tell ourselves often shape who we are and how we understand the world. They shape our family history, and bind us to the generations that came before us. When we first meet Lily, she is shy and timid, claiming that invisibility is her superpower. She also fervently believes in Halmoni’s stories of Korean folklore, which now seem to be coming to life.
“A cure is not about what we want. It’s about what we need. The same is true of stories.”
As Lily works to fulfill her side of the bargain, she begins to realize that there’s so much more to the story. She discovers that Halmoni, a Korean immigrant, has other stories, ones she never told anyone. There are painful memories of her past, things she would rather keep buried. An immigrant’s burden is to sacrifice in silence. Sometimes you have to hide parts of yourself to fit in, which means changing the stories you tell, or not telling them at all. But they will always catch up with you—some stories just refuse to stay bottled up.
Here’s the thing about growing up: you will realize that not everything has a happy ending, and that’s okay. Things won’t stay the same, a difficult lesson that Lily learns as she struggles with fitting in and dealing with Halmoni’s illness. Everything changes, but there is still so much love, if you know where to look.
Life is inevitably messy. It takes courage and a little bit of tiger blood to be brave and welcome the universe into your heart.
“Even though the tiger’s stories upset me, I’m glad I heard them. They made me feel like the world is huge, and I’m filled up with it. Like I could hear the stars, and listen.”
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller is available at Fully Booked branches.