In January, Tae Keller ’11 received a call so startling she thought she was dreaming. Her second book, “When You Trap a Tiger,” had won the prestigious 2021 Newbery Medal – recognized by the American Library Association as the year’s “most outstanding contribution to children’s literature.”
In the days after the announcement, The New York Times, The Washington Post and a flurry of other media ran articles about Keller, instantly elevating the 27-year-old to the big leagues of publishing. “I literally couldn’t believe it,” Keller said. “I got the call from the Newbery Committee, and I was so thrilled and grateful. And after we hung up, I just started thinking I must have hallucinated that. There’s no way that that just happened.”
But “When You Trap a Tiger” is hardly a fluke. It’s a gorgeously written tale, intended for middle schoolers, but captivating to readers of all ages. It tells the story of Lily, a girl who unravels deep family secrets after a magical tiger offers to restore her ailing Korean grandmother (halmoni) back to health. Keller, who lives in Seattle, began writing the 304-page novel in 2016. She got the idea one afternoon, while hanging out with her own halmoni in Hawai‘i.
“My sister and I were learning how to make kimchi, and we filled the time by asking her about her life in Korea,” Keller said. “She started telling us stories we had never heard before – how she came from Korea and how she ended up in Hawai‘i. She had lived so much and had all these stories, and I wanted to learn more about my family history, Korean history and all the folk tales that I had grown up hearing.”
Nora Keller recalls her daughter as a young girl, telling stories and urgently asking for it to be written down. “I always knew she had this wealth of stories and imagination that could weave together characters and narratives,” Nora said. Nora also recognized from reading her daughter’s earliest draft of “When You Trap a Tiger” that it had the potential to be outstanding. “There was something so special and magical about it,” she said.
Tae wrote her first book – a “Hunger Games rip-off,” as she describes it – as a senior at Punahou. Although it was just a personal project, she kept writing through college. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she spent months interviewing for various jobs, but serendipitously, didn’t land anything. Unemployment allowed her to publish her first book, “The Science of Breakable Things,” another widely acclaimed story for middle schoolers that offers an empathetic look at depression. “When You Trap a Tiger” came after.
Writing for students coming of age – not quite children, but not full-fledged teenagers – suits Tae well. “When I switched from writing for high school to middle school, my writing became much more emotions-oriented and much more vivid, because I think my memories from middle school are so burned into my memory,” she said.
Tae arrived at Punahou as a quiet fourth grader, and although she had great teachers and made good friends, she remembers being bullied as she struggled to find her way. “I remember growing up feeling like it was such a problem that I was quiet,” she said. “I had to learn to be an extroverted, loud person because I felt like otherwise, no one was going to listen to me or like me. I think that’s a struggle that kids face, especially in middle school. But I also think our culture values loud personalities.”
Like Lily from “When You Trap a Tiger,” Tae eventually found her voice. “It was important to me to write a character who finds strength in their quiet, who doesn’t have to change who they are to grow as a person,” she said.
Tae’s now busy at work on two other books. She and her husband, Joshua Nadel, also host a podcast devoted to movies and culture.
Heralded young authors sometimes face challenging paths, either resting on their laurels or getting deterred by critics. To offset this, Nora gave her daughter advice. “I told her to enjoy the accolades, but not be paralyzed it,” she said. “She had the best response that humbled me. She said, ‘I just want to learn how to better tell the stories that I hear, that I feel and that are in me.’”
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