Author Tae Keller’s Seattle apartment is “probably the cleanest it’s ever been,” she said. It got that way because she had a lot of nervous energy to burn off this past weekend. “On Friday I found out that I had won the Asian/Pacific Award for Children’s Literature,” she recalled, “and my editor [Caroline Abbey] sent me an email saying the Asian committee wanted to talk to me on Sunday and set up a Zoom call.” That prospect had her feeling both excited and anxious. “I thought it was probably them congratulating me, or, potentially taking the award away, which I was pretty nervous about.”
But when Sunday finally arrived, Keller’s jitters were quickly replaced with all sorts of other overwhelming emotions. “I got on the call and immediately saw that it was not only Asian people, and I realized that something was happening,” she said with a laugh. “Then they said, ‘This is the Newbery committee’ and my brain short-circuited and I asked them to repeat it.” The committee was calling to inform Keller that her novel When You Trap a Tiger (Random House) had been selected winner of the 2021 Newbery Medal. “I don’t even know what I said,” Keller added. “I was just so grateful, I think I said ‘thank you’ like a million times.”
Keller later learned that Abbey had been privy to the exciting news and helped create the ruse to schedule the call. “It was so cool to see everyone’s faces,” Keller remarked. “I couldn’t figure out the Zoom at first, so I was trying to work out the technology,” she said. “Then they all held up a copy of the book with the sticker on it and that was amazing. That was when it really hit me.” She vaguely recalls it being a boisterous exchange, but admits, “I think I blacked out a lot of it.”
When You Trap a Tiger follows biracial Korean American Lily as she tries to help her ailing Korean grandmother, Halmoni, by striking a deal with a magical tiger bent on recovering the stories Halmoni stole long ago. The #OwnVoices tale blends Korean mythology with a contemporary family story and bits of the fantastic; it represents the culmination of a personal journey for Keller, who delved into Korean history and her family’s history to explore her own identity. The novel received warm critical praise after its launch last January—including five starred reviews in the major review journals—and being honored with two ALA awards has been particularly gratifying for Keller.
“This book was so much about the questions about being biracial and if I belonged in the Asian community,” she said. “So, the Asian/Pacific award in its own way is so meaningful for me and so validating. I hope that biracial kid readers will see that and know that they’re part of something bigger too.”
As for the reality of being a Newbery winner, Keller said, “It truly did not feel possible and now I’m trying to understand that it happened and part of me still cannot believe it. I’ve read so many incredible books this year by my favorite authors. Knowing that I am alongside them is just incredible. It’s the part I keep thinking about.”
A number of those authors have already reached out to Keller, welcoming her to the award-winners club. “I’ve heard from so many authors that I admire—Meg Medina, Erin Entrada Kelly, Linda Sue Park, Jerry Craft—offering support and saying that they understand the process,” she said.
Keller was happy to bring her good news—via Zoom—to her family in Hawaii, including her halmoni, and has spoken with a few friends as well. But the first person she told was her husband, Josh. “It’s been incredible to have someone to share it with, every step of it,” she said. “From starting this book, through the highs and lows of the writing process, and now, I mean, wow. I was on the call and he was kind of watching from the other room. Then when I got off the call, I just started crying and he came over and said, ‘Did it happen, did it happen?’ He’s literally dancing right now.”
Asked if she’s thought of any special way to commemorate these achievements, Keller said, “Tonight [Monday] I think we’re going to make Naengmyeon [buckwheat noodles with gochujang sauce, apples, cucumber, and egg]—it’s my favorite Korean dish. That comes up in the book, so I think that’s a fun way to celebrate.”
She then has a short window to catch her breath before her two works in progress come back from their respective editors. “I think I have a week or two till they get back to me with edit notes,” she said. “But honestly, I’m really excited to get back to the work. It’s grounding amid all of this to just go back to the writing and focus on that.”