2021 John Newbery Medal Goes to Korean American
If you don’t know who Tae Keller is, you should. Korean-American Tae Keller has just won the 2021 Newbery Medal, the most prestigious honor for children’s literature, for her book When You Trap A Tiger.
Her children’s book When You Trap A Tiger details a story about a biracial girl named Lily who witnesses “…a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni’s Korean folktales… prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history.”
Like Lily, Tae Keller grew up in Hawaii listening to her halmoni’s tiger stories. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Keller, now 27, had struggled with her own biracial identity throughout college. Her first book, The Science of Breakable Things (2018), was a compassionate glimpse of mental illness accessible to a broad audience, according to Kirkus Reviews.
As protagonist Lily deals with finding her voice and the courage to face a mythical tiger, Keller tackles her own identity with race in her letter “On Race and Identity.” Throughout Keller’s journey with identity, Keller realized that she didn’t have to be “part-Korean,” she didn’t have to have “closure,” she didn’t have to find a “definitive” answer to race, and that the true meaning of her identity was her own growth.
The last time a Korean author won the Newbery Medal was in 2002, when Linda Sue Park won for her moving historical novel, A Single Shard.
Fun Facts About Tae Keller
- She was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and grew up eating spam musubis, kimchi, purple rice, and listening to her halmoni’s tiger stories
- She lives in Seattle with her husband
- She has monthly newsletters that anyone can subscribe to which she calls “love letters”
- She identifies as happa, Korean, and Korean-American
- She is also the daughter of Nora Okja Keller, who published her fiction book Comfort Woman
About the Newbery Medal
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.