Friday, May 27, 2016

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

I loved Listen, Slowly, Thanhha Lai's second novel, when I read it this year as one of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction finalists.  In my review, I wrote that it was "a wonderful story of family, love and belonging..."  Yet, despite all the buzz that included the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Newbury honor, I had never read Thanhha Lai's debut novel, Inside Out and Back Again - until now.

The story begins in 1975 Saigon, Vietnam.  The American troops have already left the country after a long. losing war and the Communists are getting closer and closer to the city.  Despite the war, 10 year-old Kim Hà has always lived a relatively ordinary life with her mother and three brothers.  Except that her father, who had been in the Vietnamese Navy, had been captured by the Communists when she was just a year old, and the family has no idea if he is dead or alive.  But now, bombs are dropping not far from Saigon and getting closer, school is closed, food is scarce, and friends are disappearing.  It is clear that the government is about to collapse and their father's friend, Uncle Sơn, tells Hà's family that it is time for them to get out of Vietnam.

Just as Saigon falls to the Communists, the family secures places on a boat that will take them to the safety of Thailand, the first leg of their journey to a new life.  Once there, Hà's mother decides the family will travel on to the United States, believing there will be more opportunity for them than any of their other choices.

After a long wait in a Florida refugee camp, the family is finally sponsored by a man wearing cowboy boots and a big cowboy hat, and find themselves living in Alabama.  Here, the family is hidden away from the sponsor's wife, who is embarrassed by them.  Adjusting to life in America is hard for the Kim family, wearing charity clothing, eating strange food so different from what they are used to, and for Hà, it means having to learn English and no longer being the best student in her class.  To make matters worse, Hà's name is pronounced incorrectly, so that it sound like laughter to American ears and naturally, this inspires the class bully to seek Hà out to victimize.

But gradually, and with a lot of ingenuity, the family adjusts, the cowboy sponsor treats them kindly, though Hà is disappointed to discover he isn't a cowboy and doesn't even have a horse,  Hà's teacher allows her to eat lunch in the classroom to avoid the class bullies, and other people begin to embrace the family with kindness.

Inside Out and Back Again is told in free verse from Hà's point of view.  It is broken up into four parts, each one describing the Kim family's journey towards making a new life for themselves in an unfamiliar country and covers one lunar year.  It is a somewhat autobiographical novel, based in part on the author's own journey from Vietnam as a child.

Hà is a wonderful protagonist, honest (sometimes too honest) and sincere. Lai has eloquently captured all the feelings of loss, frustration and longing that Hà feels throughout her story.  I really felt her despair and the sadness of having to leave so many meaningful things behind, including the young mango tree she had grown from seeds and that was just beginning to mature and bear fruit, a perfect metaphor for Hà's confident sense of identity in Vietnam, left behind like the tree.

I especially liked how Hà's relationship with each of her three brothers was portrayed.  Each brother has a personality of his own and each is clever and resourceful in his own right,  and each finds a specific way of adjusting to life in Alabama that really comes out in her descriptions.

Lai's poetry is beautifully poignant without being sappy, and the images she creates using few words are realistic and compelling.  It is a thought provoking novel about the challenges the Kim family faced by immigrating to a new country and the difficulties of trying to assimilate while still holding on to the their Vietnamese roots.  And by holding on to those roots, Hà recalls for herself and her readers the things she loves about her own country.

Inside Out and Back Again and it's personable young protagonist make this a extremely appealing book to read and appreciate.  Like Listen, Slowly, it is a absorbing story about family, love and belonging.

A Teacher Guide is available for download from the publisher, Scholastic Press.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL



  1. I think the lack of sappiness in the poetry is this books real strength. I've read this with several groups of children (boys and girls) and they all love the amount of snark and sass in the book. My own daughter has read this multiple times. It's one of her favorites.

    1. I think you are so right about the strength of this book. Hà has become one of my favorite main characters. And to think I was resistant to reading this when it first came out - what was I thinking"


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