Author: Tae Keller
Publication: Random House, hardcover, 2020
Genre: Middle-grade fiction
Setting: Washington stateDescription: Lily and her older sister Sam have moved to Washington with their mother to be near their Korean grandmother who is very ill. The girls do not immediately understand why their mother decided to move so unexpectedly and they have not fully recovered from their father’s death in a car accident several years earlier, so the news is very upsetting. Soon after they arrive, a magical tiger appears that only Lily can see and she tries to barter with it for her grandmother’s health. It takes courage for Lily to step out of her usual observer role to interact with the tiger and also to make friends with the people in her Halmoni’s neighborhood – to recognize that she is “a girl who sees invisible things, but [is] not invisible.”
My Impression: This is a charming story about sisters who love their Korean grandmother but are sometimes embarrassed by her quirks. Their Halmoni is a wonderful storyteller and all her Korean folktales begin, “Long, long ago, when tiger walked like man . . . “ The story Lily likes best is a variation on Red Riding Hood about two sisters and a tiger.
There is some beautiful writing in this book:
It’s hard to breathe. I know now: The moment when everything really falls apart – it’s not during the big explosion. It’s in the quiet right after. And the feeling is not a shattering. Not quite.Somehow I missed this book winning the 2021 Newbery Medal but I can see it was a good choice although I am not a fan of magical realism so would not have chosen it myself. But then I started to wonder like Carrie Bradshaw. . .
It’s more of a crumbling. Like I’m still trying to hold my heart together, but the tighter I squeeze, the faster it breaks apart.
Crumble, crumble, until there’s nothing but tiny pieces, scraps of feeling that I can’t put back together.
What is magical realism?Glatch, S. (2021, January 27). What is Magical Realism? Writers.com https://writers.com/what-is-magical-realism-in-literature
In short, “magical realism” describes a work of fiction where fantasy slips into everyday life. However, the focus isn’t on the fantastical elements of the story, so much as on what those elements mean for the characters. Fantasy often acts as an extended metaphor, externalizing some sort of internal conflict or moral quandary in the protagonist’s life.
I suppose I dislike magical realism because I prefer actual fantasy or realistic fiction, not something in the middle. I like The Wizard of Oz book but find the movie annoying because it concludes that Oz was just a dream. Here, Lily knows the tiger isn’t real but confronting it causes her, usually the quiet younger sister in Sam’s shadow, not to be invisible anymore. The story is full of well-drawn characters in addition to the beloved grandmother: the girls’ worried mother; Lily’s awkward new friend, Ricky; Jensen a kindhearted older girl who works at the library; and even Joe, the grumpy librarian. The author also portrays the relationship between the sisters very well – they have grown apart as Sam has become an impatient teen but Lily needs her big sister so it is good to see them begin to understand each other. One weakness of the story was that it seemed very predictable. I think the average 10-year-old would have seen the plot signposts.