From Korean Folklore to a Newbery Medal, Tae Keller Wins Coveted Prize for When You Trap a Tiger

Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger is the "book of my heart," the author says, and it earned her a Newbery Medal on a day when women swept the prestigious award.  

Tae Keller
Photo by Saavedra Photography


While Tae Keller was revising her novel When You Trap a Tiger, there were moments she describes as "almost mystical." She was finding connections between the Korean folklore she was researching and  stories she had written in an earlier draft. 

"I had this feeling like I was tapping into something much bigger than myself," she said. "This was about a whole tradition of storytelling that I am just lucky to be a part of."

Keller is now part of a another group of storytellers—Newbery-winning authors—since When You Trap a Tiger was named the 2021 Newbery Medal winner during the Youth Media Awards virtual ceremony on Monday.

"You always hope that a book resonates, but you never know for sure," said Keller, who planned to celebrate with Zoom calls, dancing around her apartment, and making Korean food for dinner. "I just knew this book meant a lot to me, and I hoped, because of that, because I’ve poured so much of my own heart into it, readers would feel that and would connect. It’s just so rewarding to see that people have. I feel so honored, and I feel so grateful to the committee."

Keller won the award in an all-women Newbery year, as the five Honor titles were written by women. All of the Caldecott winners were woman as well.

"It's so exciting," said Keller. 

Christina Soontornvat had two Honor books, All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team and A Wish in the Dark. The other three Newbery Honor books were BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly.

It was a big day in all categories for women creators. Michaela Goade, who won the Caldecott for We Are Water Protectors, which was written by Carole Lindstom; and Jacqueline Woodson, who was named the Coretta Scott King Author Award winner for Before the Ever After. Candace Fleming won two awards for two different titles, earning the Sibert  for Honeybee and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults for The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. 

Keller noted the number of diverse voices recognized this year and in the recent past.

"It is such a gift," said Keller. "I’m so inspired by them, and I’m so honored to just be part of that group of authors."

She also enters the rarified group of Newbery winners, whose winning books become automatic purchases in libraries and schools across the country.

"This book is the book of my heart, and to know it’s going to reach more readers now is amazing," Keller said. "Honestly, I can’t process that part of it. I know intellectually that that’s about to happen and I am so thrilled; I am so grateful that that’s going to happen. But I haven't emotionally processed that."

Hours after the awards were announced, Keller was going on just a few hours of sleep and still finding it all hard to believe. After getting the news of her Newbery win on Sunday, she spent a restless night wondering if she had heard correctly. How could it really be true?  

When she saw the book cover and heard her name announced, "It was just such a rush of 'Oh my gosh, this is actually real.'"

For Newbery committee chair Jonda McNair, Keller's novel stood out early in the year.

"The first time that I read When You Trap a Tiger, I personally had a strong feeling that it would be a serious contender," McNair said via email. "It set a high bar, which I used for comparison with other titles published in 2020. I would say that the book stood for out several reasons which include a strong and commanding authorial voice that pulls readers in from the very beginning, fully developed characters who realistically evolve and grow over the course of the novel, an engaging and original plotline with lots of twists and turns (and magic), and an innovative style that seamlessly incorporated Korean folklore."

When You Trap a Tiger also won the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Children's Literature Award, an honor that meant a lot to Keller.

"This book was so much about my identity and my feelings about being Korean," she said, noting that growing up, she often didn't feel like she fit in the Asian community that she wanted to be a part of and accepted into. "So getting this award means so much. It’s just validation that I do belong and I’m so hopeful that now biracial Asian kid readers will be reading this book and will know they also belong to something bigger. It’s so meaningful."

 

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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