Tae Keller took a deep dive into her culture a few years ago and came away with an award for the ages.
Her 2020 novel “When You Trap a Tiger” (Random House) received the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. In making the announcement last week, Newbery Medal Committee Chairwoman Jonda C. McNair praised the book as a “riveting tale about the power of stories” that “can help readers embrace the tiger within themselves — by displaying their strength and courage when necessary.”
“It is still so completely surreal,” Keller, a 27-year-old Honolulu native, said Thursday from her home in Seattle, where her husband is in graduate school. “I’m thrilled, I’m honored. It’s amazing. I’m still trying to process it.”
Her book tells its story through the eyes of a tween Korean American girl, Lily, and her arresting interactions with a magical, talking tiger that offers a cure for Lily’s ailing Halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean). The tale blends elements of magical realism and folklore to address themes of identity, alienation, friendship, family tragedy and mortality.
“Kids are going through a lot,” Keller said. “They’re going through a lot of big, challenging things, so hopefully I’m bringing these things to them in a way that is accessible to digest and to understand.”
Keller grew up hearing her grandmother’s traditional Korean folk tales, with a “Little Red Riding Hood”-like story about a tiger that tricks two girls being a particular favorite. But about six years ago her grandmother started talking more about her childhood in Korea.
“This was the first time I understood that she had a full life before me,” Keller said. “I started diving back into my family history and Korean history in general and returning to all of these folk tales that I had heard as a kid through a new lens and understanding.”
Writing runs in Keller’s veins. She is the daughter of Nora Okja Keller, prize-winning author of “Comfort Woman” and “Fox Girl” and a former columnist for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Ever since I was little I looked up to my mom,” she said. “I always loved writing. I was writing books as soon as I could hold a pencil. Of course, I thought that they were masterpieces. They were cute stories about my stuffed animals.”
After graduating from Punahou School, Keller studied English at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania — though she admits to a “rebellious phase” and threatening to go into computer science. She then worked awhile in publishing, an experience that helped her appreciate how difficult it is to get a book published.
She authored one other book in 2018, “The Science of Breakable Things” (Random House), which she said “kind of poured out of me,” whereas “Tiger” was more arduous and challenging but ultimately more rewarding.
“I feel really grateful for this book and this process because I learned so much about myself,” she said.
Keller maintains close ties to Hawaii and wanted to give a shout-out to da Shop: books + curiosities, a bookstore in Kaimuki. “That’s where I launched the book,” she said. “That’s the first home of the book, and they’ve been so supportive.”
While “When You Trap a Tiger” is set in Washington state — Keller sought to underscore Lily’s sense of being “hapa, being an outsider” — she vowed that “one day I’m going to write a book set in Hawaii. That is a big goal for me. I feel a lot of pressure for a book set in Hawaii because I really want to do it justice and get it right. That’s a career goal.”