Twelve year old Lily, her sister, and her mother have moved to Washington to live with her halmoni, who is ill. When a magical tiger from Halmoni’s past starts visiting Lily, she learns that there are many stories and secrets in her grandmother’s past. Lily makes a deal with the tiger in order to save Halmoni’s life, but will it be too much for her to handle? 2021 Newbery Medal winner When You Trap a Tiger is a wondrous story about Korean folklore, family, love, and the power of stories.
Lily, her older sister Sam, and their mother have moved from sunny California to rainy Washington state. Their father died in a car accident, and now their beloved halmoni (Korean for grandmother) is ill. On the drive to Washington, Lily is shocked when she sees a tiger in the middle of the road, and confused when she realizes that her mother and sister did not see it. When Lily tells Halmoni about the tiger, Halmoni says that the tigers are looking for her, and warns Lily to stay away from them. Her grandmother says that she stole something from the tiger long ago and now the tiger wants it back.
One night, after Lily sees her halmoni getting sick, Halmoni tells her about what she stole from the tigers when she was a little girl: the stars that are filled with stories. She scooped up the stars in jars and closed them tight so that she’d never have to hear bad stories again. Halmoni tells Lily that, even though she trapped the tigers in a cave long ago, they must’ve broken free and are hunting her, wanting back what she stole. Wanting to protect her grandmother and family, Lily goes to the library to research tigers. At the library she sees a tiger running gracefully through the shelves and disappears. She also meets Jensen, a friendly girl about her sister’s age, and Ricky, a boy her age. She is happy to have met some new friends, as Sam seems to want to do nothing but look at her phone and be miserable.
That night, Lily wakes to find the tiger downstairs waiting for her. The tiger, who is a female, wants to make a deal with Lily: return the stories, and your halmoni will get well. Lily remembers that Ricky’s great grandfather was a tiger hunter, and decides that has no choice but to trap the tiger to save her halmoni. Lily and Ricky work together for hours, and along the way Lily finds several “star jars” wrapped in bubble wrap. She immediately remembers Halmoni’s story, and keeps the jars a secret.
The next night, Lily is pleased and surprised to see that her trap has worked! Equipped with the stolen “star jars”, Lily confronts the tiger, demanding that she heal her halmoni. The tiger, who isn’t really trapped but just appeasing Lily, responds with a chuckle and reiterates her deal: return the stolen stories, and your halmoni will be healed. Tired of being quiet and seemingly invisible, Lily decides to accept the tiger’s offer and opens one of the jars. As the stolen story becomes free, Lily becomes engrossed in its words, and is caught off guard at how much it has impacted her. These stories, she realizes, are filled with meaning and history. Lily and the tiger agree to meet again, so that more stories can be returned.
Lily learns that Halmoni has brain cancer and is not getting better. She is running out of time, and so is Lily. Halmoni tells Lily that she does not need saving, she is not scared, and that it is all going to be okay. Lily feels desperate, alone, and sad. She feels out of control because she cannot save Halmoni, and she wonders if everything she’s seen and done was all just a crazy dream. When Halmoni collapses and mother takes her to the hospital, Sam and Lily don’t know what to do. They want to be there, but Sam is too nervous to drive in the rain and pulls over near the library. Lily remembers seeing and talking to the tiger in the library, and breaks in, asking for the tiger’s help. The tiger leads the girls to the hospital safely, much to Sam’s disbelief, and the family is all together for Halmoni’s last breath.
When You Trap a Tiger will win the hearts of teachers and students of all ages. It beautifully blends the magic of stories and the cultural beliefs of Lily’s Korean heritage, with the modern day challenges that Lily and her sister face as biracial girls in the Western part of the United States.