Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Book Review: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (2020)

In When You Trap a Tiger, the 2021 Newbery Medal winner, Lily, her mom, and her sister, Sam, have recently left California and moved to Sunbeam, Washington to live with Lily's halmoni, her Korean grandmother who has always been surrounded by an air of magic and mystery. Upon arriving, Lily sees a tiger in the road outside Halmoni's house, but when she realizes it isn't visible to anyone else, she understands that something unusual is happening. In fact, after talking with Halmoni and learning that she is ill, Lily comes to believe that Halmoni has stolen stories and the tiger has come to take them back. If only Lily can bargain with the tiger, she believes she'll be able to save her grandmother's life. 

Just like the 2018 Newbery medal winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, this is a mediocre and surface-level story about a young non-white girl and a beloved grandparent, only this time with a bit of a fantastical twist. Compared with the high standard set by Newbery winners of decades past, this one is largely unremarkable and forgettable. The writing is very commercial and conversational, with lots of tween-friendly dialogue and not much in the way of figurative language, other than a beaten-to-death tiger metaphor. It is impossible for me to accept that this book was the most distinctive of 2020, even given the very small number of new middle grade books I read last year. 

As always, though, I can easily find all the "woke" elements that must have made this book so appealing to the committee. In the scene where Lily first visits the public library, the teen girl who works there (who later becomes the object of Lily's older sister's crush) tells her that she doubts they have any books on Korean folktales because "this town is pretty white." This makes sure to blame not the librarian who purchases the books, but the entire white population of the community for apparently excluding Lily's entire culture from the shelves. (I also don't buy that a public library doesn't have Korean folk tales. The folk tale sections of every library I've worked in have been robust and diverse regardless of the color of the majority of patrons' skin. If this specific library doesn't have them, the author needs a more nuanced explanation.)

A few pages later, Lily meets Ricky, an excitable middle schooler who doesn't have many friends and is awkward in social situations. Within two sentences, Ricky has been painted as sexist because he tells Lily he's "never met a girl who likes tigers before." Ricky is shown to be insensitive later in the book as well, when he mocks Lily's grandmother for her cultural customs. When he apologizes, he is not only portrayed as an idiot (he can't pronounce halmoni, even after being corrected) but he also actually uses the phrase "hostile environment." I'd hate to be a boy reading this story; with Ricky representing the male sex, he won't walk away feeling particularly good about being male. The talking tiger in the story also makes a comment about gender when Lily assumes she is a boy: "Typical. You hear one story about a male tiger and think we're all the same? Humans are the worst." Not the most uplifting message for the 8-to-12-year-old audience.

I also really felt uncomfortable with some of the story's messages. I didn't like the constant feeling that the reader was being led to reject old stories and to celebrate writing new ones to replace them, as it reminds me of the way libraries are starting to remove older titles for dubious reasons. I also really hated the idea that "sometimes people feel trapped in their own skin and they have to leave" as an explanation for why Ricky's mother (a stay-at-home mom) abandoned her family. Stay-at-home motherhood is not a trap, and I don't like being asked to empathize with someone for escaping it by basically neglecting her role as a mother entirely. I also felt that this book took a very bleak view on death, commenting that after someone dies, "the person you loved is gone" and not really leaving any room for Halmoni's suffering to have any meaning.   

A line from this book says, "Even if things aren't perfect, they can still be good." Unfortunately, this book's imperfections are so numerous that it's just not good. We own most of the Newbery medal winners from previous decades, but just like the winners from 2018, 2019 and 2020, we will not buy this one, nor will my kids be reading it. It's endlessly frustrating that an award given for high-quality writing keeps singling out middling books because they check the right political boxes. I'm more annoyed by the content than I would have been had this book not been awarded a Newbery. 

No comments:

Post a Comment