2021 Newbery Medal Acceptance by Tae Keller

Oh my goodness. The Newbery speech. This is a little intimidating. I’ve spent the past months wondering what, exactly, a Newbery speech should contain. I wondered if I should mention that this all feels a little impossible. I wondered if I should talk about how I called my family as soon as I heard, told them I’d won, and then immediately worried I’d hallucinated the whole thing.

“What if,” I’d asked my husband, “I got it all wrong and I didn’t actually win and now my whole family will be watching?”

“We have a wonderful family,” he said, soothingly, “but unfortunately, we’d never be able to see them again, because you’d never live that down.”

It was a nerve-wracking few hours before the live announcement.

But of course, I shouldn’t say that in my Newbery speech.

Mostly, as I wrote draft after draft, I wondered how anything I said could possibly live up to the epicness of winning the Newbery. In truth, it couldn’t. And after many crumpled-up, not-entirely-epic speech drafts…I stopped trying to write a speech. Because anyway, this virtual format isn’t very speech-like, is it?

This year feels different. Instead of standing at a podium, I’m sitting at my writing desk, the same one that has seen me through about fifty drafts of various projects. I’m sitting in the same chair I sat in while the Newbery committee told me, over Zoom, that I’d won. The same chair I sat in, just moments later, after I logged off and burst into ugly tears. Considering I’m wearing fuzzy house slippers, a speech feels a little too formal.

So. Let’s forget, for a moment, what this banquet might have looked like in another world. Because in this world, you’re here, in my home. Imagine you are sitting across from me, drinking tea, swapping stories, sharing ­gossip — and if we’re sharing gossip, we may as well start with Jonda McNair.

The first thing that you should know about the chair of the Newbery committee is that she’s very nice. When I’d pictured a hypothetical Newbery chair, I’d envisioned someone stoic and stern, like a British schoolteacher who might narrow their eyes at a book and say, “Why is this author so fond of the em-dash?”

But Jonda is joyful and warm and not, in fact, British. She was generous enough to repeat herself during The Call, when she introduced herself and my brain short-circuited and I said, “Wait? What? Can you say that again?”

And a few months later, she invited me to a virtual visit with her class — which brings me to the second thing you should know: she asks some tough questions.

During this visit, she started with a big one, asking, “What does the tiger represent?” 

Now, in her defense, this probably shouldn’t have been a tough question. If you’re thinking something like, “Well, Tae, you did write a book about a magical tiger, so that’s a question a sensible writer should be prepared for,” you would be correct.

But I am not sensible, so my response was something like, “Oh my god, I hope I don’t give the wrong answer.”

That is not the professional confidence you hope to exude to the chair of the Newbery ­committee — but we return to thing number one, which is that Jonda McNair is very nice, and hopefully didn’t hold the question-dodging against me.

In the months since, though, I’ve kept coming back to that question. I’ve been thinking about the many drafts I’d written, the notebooks I’d filled, all while asking myself that same thing. What does the tiger mean?

In each revision of this book, I tried to layer in meaning: identity, courage, death, hope. I imagined readers finding the themes in Lily’s journey that speak to them. I pictured them holding those ideas to their heart, while gently setting down the rest.

But for me, the tiger has always represented one question: Why do we tell stories?

If the tiger was haunting Lily, it was haunting me, too. A challenge, a dare. Why do we tell stories?

Most writers, even the least sensible of them, are prepared to answer why we write.

When people ask, I say I write because writing is the thing that makes me feel most like myself.

Or, on another day, I might say I write because hearing that I made an impact on just one reader’s life makes it worth it.

Or, on a slightly less noble day, I might say I write because it’s my job and I need to eat.

But why I write and why we tell stories are not the same question.

And when I try to answer the tiger’s real question, I don’t think of readers or plot arcs or my livelihood. I think of my halmoni.

I think about late nights when I was a kid and she was staying with us. I think about those nights when I felt trapped by the walls of my heart, when I longed for something bigger, when I was so filled with feeling I thought I might burst. Those nights, I would wake my sister and we would slip into Halmoni’s room, ­begging for a story.

Curled up next to her, we’d wait for the words, Long, long ago, when tiger walked like man, and then, for a moment, we’d be somewhere else. These stories took us to Korea — a ­country I’d only visited once — and, even further, to a world where tigers could speak and little girls could shapeshift. With my halmoni’s words, my heart expanded. My universe expanded. So much existed beyond Nawele Street in Waipahu, Hawaii.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it, I believed, then, that this was why we tell stories — to remind ourselves that the world is big and bright and full of possibility. And that is true, but it isn’t the whole truth — because when I try to answer the tiger’s question, when I try to understand why stories really matter, I also think of another day, years later.

I’d left Hawaii for the mainland, but I was home for a few weeks, visiting, and I couldn’t shake the feeling of loss, a sense that, somehow, I’d left myself behind when I left the islands. Suddenly, the world felt far too big, and I couldn’t find myself inside of it.

Not knowing what else to do, I asked my halmoni to teach me to make kimchi, as if the familiar flavor would bring me home, as if a recipe could be a guidebook: here, these are the ingredients that make you who you are.

Of course, it wasn’t the napa cabbage, or the salt, or even the gochugaru that brought me home. It was the stories. Because as my halmoni cooked, she began to speak. She told stories I’d never heard before, about her childhood in Gimhae, Korea, when she felt trapped by the walls of her heart. She told me about immigrating to the U.S., moving, with young children, to a country that felt so big and foreign that she couldn’t find herself inside of it.

For much of my life, stories had been a fantastical escape. They’d let me become someone different. But that day, stories did something else. They ­connected me to her, to my family, to my heritage. They bridged Gimhae, Korea, and Waipahu, Hawaii. And in doing so, this impossibly huge world felt small again. It felt connected.

And that, I thought, was the real answer. We tell stories because they ­connect us to the world and guide us back to ourselves. Stories show us who we are — and without stories, who are we?

It’s the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.

***

I’m lucky enough that my halmoni is still with us. But we see the signs. We know that our time is not infinite. And when she tells stories now, I feel the need to hold them tight, because I know the day is coming when that’s all I’ll have left of her.

I feel it — that lack of time — and I know she does, too, and I know my family does, too, and I wrote a whole book, hoping it would prepare me, but of course it hasn’t.

The thing is, over the past few years, her stories have started to change. They’ve shapeshifted as she’s begun to lose her memory. And it scares me, because without her stories, who is she? Who am I?

For the first time in my life, I’ve felt betrayed by stories — because what if they don’t last? What if they’re not enough?

There is a strange thing about winning this award in a year defined, in so many ways, by loss and uncertainty. I believe so wholly in stories, and I want so badly to sit here and say that stories will save us. But right now, I don’t know if that’s the whole truth.

Sitting at the dinner table — or on Zoom — with my sister and my parents, talking story about Halmoni, has shown me that stories cannot always change our reality. No matter how many stories we tell, one day, we will lose her.

But it has also shown me that stories can make our reality a little better. Because telling stories, hearing stories, breaks down the walls of our hearts. It bridges not only continents, but also the islands of individual experience. In stories, I see that I am not alone in my grief and fear. I’m not even alone in my hope.

So that is the truth I hold to my heart.

When we are young and dreaming of a bigger universe, when we are growing up and feeling lost in the world, when we are grieving terrible sorrows — stories show us that we’re not alone. And if that’s not enough, it’s something. It has gotten me through.

More than anything else, I am grateful. I am grateful that I get to tell stories. I am grateful to the ­storytellers who have come before me. I am grateful to be in a community that cares about stories as much as I do. And I’m grateful that you’ve let me sit here, ­giving me time to answer a question that has no answer.

But our time is not infinite, so let’s imagine for a moment that this cozy afternoon tea has grown into a house party. We’re all together, now, and I’d like to speak to some people specifically.

To my wonderful family — living with a writer is kind of a pain. We are a needy, dramatic type, so thank you for your patience. Thank you for reading my bad first drafts and telling me they are great. You are terrible liars and I love you so much.

To my publishing team at Greenhouse Literary Agency and Random House, what a wonderful joy it has been to work with people who truly love children’s books. And to my editor, Chelsea Eberly, thank you for refusing to give up on this story, even when, in my darkest moments, I wanted to.

To Jonda McNair, thank you for asking that question. I hope I answered it well enough. And to the whole ­Newbery committee, I don’t really know what to say except Oh my goodness. I would say you’ve made my dreams come true, but the truth is, I never let myself dream this big. The morning after the announcement, I wrote in my journal, If I just accomplished the biggest dream possible, is it time to stop dreaming? Or is it finally time to start? Thank you for showing me that I can dream — and that I can dream big.

To the Asian American community, I’d like to speak to you for a moment.

When You Trap a Tiger opens with Lily saying, “I can turn invisible.” When I wrote that, I was drawing on my own experience — and I didn’t realize until this past year just how common that feeling was in our community.

But I don’t want to be invisible anymore. I don’t want any of us to be invisible anymore.

I’m so honored to be at this virtual house party with other Newbery honor winners, Christina Soontornvat and Erin Entrada Kelly, writers I’ve admired for many years, who are telling not just Asian stories, but Southeast Asian stories — a demographic that has been unforgivably underrepresented in our media. And I’m grateful to the many Asian writers who have inspired me and continue to inspire me.

But we need more stories, and we need to champion those stories, so now, to the librarians — this is your conference and I want to speak to you.

Thank you. Thank you for the work you do. We live in a society that doesn’t value your work enough, and I want you to know that I see you and I am grateful. Thank you for sharing stories. Thank you for sharing diverse stories. Please keep doing it.

Because stories matter. They make our worlds both bigger and smaller. They let us escape, and they bring us back home. They comfort us, and they push us out of our comfort zones. They show us that our individual voice matters and, also, that we are part of a much bigger community.

They show us that we are not alone.

And now, after a year that has often felt isolating, I am grateful to be here — not at all alone. Thank you for reading this story about a magical tiger and a lonely, quiet, hopeful girl. Thank you for seeing it, and celebrating it, and turning it into a house party.


Tae Keller is the winner of the 2021 Newbery Medal for When You Trap a Tiger, published by Random House. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 27, 2021. From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.


Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269
ksouth@juniorlibraryguild.com

Tae Keller

Tae Keller is the winner of the 2021 Newbery Medal and a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Fiction and Poetry Honor book for When You Trap a Tiger, published by Random House.

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