When You Trap a Tiger

Book review by
JK Sooja, Common Sense Media
When You Trap a Tiger Book Poster Image
Superb family tale of loss has mystery, folklore, sadness.

Parents say

age 7+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

Did we miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Representations and descriptions of Korean American family life ground the Korean folklore mystery. Korean foods like kimchi, rice cakes, and mandu (dumplings) are made, eaten. Characters often discuss Korean mythological creatures (e.g., magical tigers) and traditional stories. A few references to the history of Korean people being "a sad one" and "full of sad stories." A woman says, "Long, long ago, Japan and United States people do wrong things to our country." Some references to well-known Korean folklore and mythology. 

Positive Messages

Positive themes of family, bravery, courage, and perseverance in face of mystery, uncertainty, and family loss. Strong messages of taking over your own story, of how to do deal with loss, grief, fear, sadness. Gives a voice to those who've been called "quiet," shy, and worse. Loss is a part of life but so are love, family, friends, history, and hope for the future. 

Positive Role Models

Lily is a fantastic half-White, half-Asian lead, and her worldview is wonderfully presented, revealing her doubt, courage, and intelligence. Lily confronts many challenges, is incredibly resourceful and brave, and, in helping her grandmother, risks a great deal. Over her journey, Lily will cast off her sister Sam's stereotype of her as a "QAG" ("Quiet Asian Girl"), and she'll encourage everyone to tell their own story. Her grandmother is well liked in her community; everyone knows, respects her. She's a soft, warm presence but can also be stern, assertive. Sam is confident and out to do the right thing, even if she doesn't show it. She supports Lily when she's most in need. Lily's mother is a good, hard-working parent. The librarian is pleasant and encouraging, and Ricky is open to a fault, positively nerdy, and a good friend. 

Violence & Scariness

The first couple of times Lily meets the magical tiger are a little tense (with one small jump scare) and could scare some younger viewers. A few references to a car crash in the rain that killed a father. A car almost hits a magical tiger in the road but swerves and misses it at the last second. A shadow monster forms into a tiger woman in a fairy tale. An older woman is made fun of by some boys while her granddaughter is present. The girl then puts mud in a cupcake and gives it to one of the boys; he eats some of it. A father yells "Shut up!" at his son in a grocery store. An older woman mentions how in the past, "Japan and United States do wrong things" to Korea. 


A girl is called a "QAG" or "Quiet Asian Girl," which is a stereotype. The term is used throughout the novel. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger won the 2021 Newbery Medal. It's about an 8-year-old Korean American girl named Lily and her family. Having recently and suddenly moved away from California to be closer to her halmoni (grandmother), Lily must be brave and trap a tiger -- only this tiger is magical, and conventional traps might not work. Lily is an inquisitive, brave, and intrepid girl on a quest to uncover a mystery and save her family. The novel has fun with magical realism, Korean folklore, and the imagination of an awesome hero, and it also deals with death, family loss, and grief. There are a few tense moments with the magical tiger that might briefly scare younger readers, and a few references to a car crash that killed a father. A different father scarily yells "Shut up!" to his son at a grocery store. A girl is called a "QAG" ("Quiet Asian Girl") and ponders the stereotypical term throughout the book. An older woman mentions how "Japan and United States do wrong things" to Korea. The novel has positive themes of courage in the face of uncertainty, perseverance in the midst of despair, and personal and cultural integrity through loss and grief.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byKim K. May 3, 2021

Wonderful, layered and fascinating story about culture, empathy, loss and love

Loved this book. Rich character development, exciting story, excellent themes, relevant to many life experiences, and very enjoyable for the adults and kids in... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old December 29, 2021

One of the best books I've read.

When You Trap a Tiger is a book about a girl named Lily who moves into her Halmoni's (grandmother) house and immediately starts seeing a mythical tiger wh... Continue reading

What's the story?

In WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, Lily and her big sister, Sam, leave California to go live with their halmoni (grandmother). The sisters had lives in California (especially 14-year-old Sam), and they aren't exactly excited that their mother made the decision without telling them. But the girls suspect that their mother isn't telling them everything about what's going on with Halmoni. Lily wants to get to the bottom of it, but Mom isn't budging, Sam doesn't want to help, and there seems to be a magical tiger that may or may not want to eat Halmoni, just like in the old Korean folktales Halmoni would tell them when they were much younger children. The only problem is, Lily is the only one who sees the tiger. With the help of a new friend, some luck, and perseverance, Lily is determined to trap this tiger once and for all. What's the worst that could happen?  

Is it any good?

There's a kind of magic in this book that goes beyond the sum of its parts: a coming-of-age story; an #ownvoices narrative of loss, grief, and triumph; and a modern folktale all in one. When You Trap a Tiger has a strong girl lead who's brave, complex, and diligent, and a strong representation and depiction of Korean American home life, culture, and traditions. There's mystery, intrigue, and plenty of reasons to race through the pages. The writing is fast, genuine, and rich, and there are plenty of references to Korean and American folklore. By the end, it isn't merely a story of losing family, but a story about what happens when you keep the stories of others alive, stories of people, family, difficulty, success, tragedy, and the future. In a way, it's a kind of new folktale that merges old ideas with modern ones, blends Korean mythology with modern American folklore, and achieves a kind of beauty all its own. Subtle nods to Where the Wild Things Are, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Goodnight Moon appear in Lily's remembering of Halmoni's Korean folklore stories, creating a kind of meta-narrative where this novel is doing what its story is about. When You Trap a Tiger shows how you can make new stories and new folklore your own. Be aware, though: It packs a serious emotional punch. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how When You Trap a Tiger explores grief and sadness. Each family member is shown dealing with them in different ways. How does Lily's journey differ from her sister Sam's or their mother's?  

  • Why might Lily's older sister, Sam, have a complicated reason for calling her younger sister a "QAG," or "Quiet Asian Girl"? How does Lily's view of this term change over the course of her journey?

  • Do you think Lily and her family are the descendants of the people in Halmoni's stories? Do you think the magical tiger is real? Do these questions matter? Why, or why not?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love Asian stories

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate