When You Trap a Tiger

Book cover image of the book "When You Trap a Tiger."

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Book Review

When young Lily, as well as her mom and sister, move in with her sick grandmother, Lily starts seeing things right out of her grandmother’s Korean folktale stories. In particular, she spots a huge magical tiger: a here-and-gone talking beast that wants to make a deal. If Lily can help the tiger find some once-stolen items, it portends Grandmother’s recovery. But should anyone make deals with magical tigers?

Plot Summary

Lily’s teenage sister, Sam, calls her a QAG: a stereotypical Quiet Asian Girl. And as much as Lily hates that her sister teases her with that acronym, she has to admit that the derogatory term kind of fits. You see, Lily’s always had that special ability to disappear, to be ignored or overlooked in a room full of people. She doesn’t make a fuss, she doesn’t draw people’s attention, she doesn’t even make friends all that easily. She stays quiet.

So, when Lily, Sam and their mother all pack up and move from California to their grandmother’s home in Sunbeam, Washington, Lily doesn’t say much. Sam complains openly. On the hour. But Lily takes things in stride. If nothing else, she’ll get to see her Halmoni, her Korean grandmother, and hear her stories once again. Halmoni weaves the most wonderful stories—some plucked from Korean folklore, others snatched out of imagination—that have always seemed magical and mysterious to Lily.

But when Lily and her family pull into Sunbeam—in a pouring torrential rain, no less—Lily sees a tiger. No, not just a tiger, this is a Tiger: a huge, obviously magical beast that no one else in the car can see. And the young girl starts to worry that either something is terribly wrong; or that perhaps the stress of leaving their home, after her father’s recent death, is making her just a little crazy.

When they all slosh wet and soggily into Halmoni’s house and get to see and hug the old beloved woman, though, Lily quickly realizes that something is terribly wrong. Her grandmother is obviously frail and sick. And it’s equally clear that they haven’t all arrived just for a visit.

Lily starts to piece things together after Halmoni tells her another broad and fanciful story. It’s a story about herself as a younger woman, and the power of stories … and of stories stolen. And when Lily is paid another visit by the now talking magical tiger, she realizes that her grandmother stole some forgotten stories long, long ago. The tiger suggests that they are the reason that her grandmother is falling ill. The mystical beast even offers Lily a bargain for her Halmoni’s life if she helps find those hidden-away precious things.

But can anyone truly trust a magical tiger? For that matter, should any sane person even believe in such outlandish deals? And what will happen if you do?

Lily doesn’t have any answers for any of that. But … she does believe.   

Christian Beliefs

Lily’s mom talks about Halmoni’s failing health and says, “It’s in God’s hand now.” Sam responds, “But what if I don’t believe in God?” Later Lily overhears her mother quietly praying and asking God not to take her mother yet.

Other Belief Systems

A magical mysticism swirls around all of Halmoni’s Korean folklore stories. They’re tales of struggles against magical shapeshifting creatures, they usually include two sisters who represent the sun and the moon, and they generally involve conversations with a “sky god.”

Part of Lily recognizes that these stories can’t be true and could be allegorical tales meant to deliver lessons about making wise choices or to communicate important things about Korean culture. But another part of the young tween wants to believe in the supernatural aspects of those stories. She wants to believe that there is a magical tiger who can solve her problems and make her grandmother well again. And in that light, Lily secretly works at trapping the tiger and making it follow through on its growling promises.

Halmoni also follows some Korean spiritual traditions. She insists, for instance, that the family must set aside portions of food for “spirits and ancestors” in a ceremony called kosa at mealtime. The tiger also observes, “Story magic is powerful. Powerful enough to change someone.”

Authority Roles

Lily’s mom is loving and kind. And she does everything she can to try and get work while caring for the family around her. You can tell that she also carries a great emotional weight after recently losing her husband in a traffic accident. But Mom is resilient and holds everything together throughout. Halmoni, on the other hand is a guiding force of wisdom, even in the midst of her illness. She hands out small bits of common sense and Korean grandmother wisdom even to the members of the local community. And the townspeople love her for it.

When Sam and Lily ask Halmoni about something she says to a near stranger, she tells the girls: “Everybody has good and bad in them. But sometimes they so focused on sad, scary stories in life that they forget the good. When that happen, you don’t tell them they are bad. That only make it worse. You remind them of good!”

We hear of a local mother who grew frustrated and left her family. And how the woman’s young son blames himself for not doing enough to make her want to stay. In another one of Halmoni’s stories, she tells of her own mother leaving the family when she was just a girl.

Profanity & Violence

No foul language. We learn that Halmoni is struggling with a rare brain cancer. It causes her to be violently ill and have bouts of total memory loss during which she makes some irrational choices. During one of those bouts, she drives her car off the road with the girls in the back seat, even though she isn’t supposed to be driving. We also hear a brief mention of the fact that Lily’s dad was killed in a car accident.

Over the course of the story, we watch as Lily becomes much more “tigerlike” herself. The emotional strain of her grandmother’s illness makes her react in ways that even her family members are surprised by. She gets angry more quickly and lashes out at several points, smashing bottles up against a wall and throwing books in a library.

Sexual Content

Lily and her sister, Sam, meet some young people their own age at a nearby local library. One of them is a teen girl named Jensen whom Sam has a crush-like reaction to. Later we see that the two girls become huggingly close, and Lily realizes that they are now a couple.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Have you ever been worried about someone else or afraid that they might die? How did you handle it? Or if not, how do you think you would handle it? As Christians do you think there are things that God gives us to help us in those moments? Are there promises that we can rely on?

Why do you think Lily started seeing the tiger? What did it represent for her? And what do you think the Tiger and Halmoni meant when they said that stories have power or that stories can be dangerous?

Lily makes friends with a boy named Ricky, and he’s being tutored for a class he kept failing. Was there a reason, do you think, why Ricky kept failing that class?

When you have a sad day, or when you feel upset about changes that happen, do you ever talk to anybody about it? Are some people easier to talk to than others? Why? Do you think talking helps?

What did you like most about this book?

Additional Comments

This Newbury Medal winning book has some compelling things to say about dealing with the death of a loved one. It also explores cultural differences and the need to respect and learn from cultures other than your own. But parents should know that there are some potential spiritual and some light same-sex attraction issues here that they may need to talk through with their younger readers.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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