Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: First time author Lai draws on her childhood experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant in this verse novel Inside Out & Back Again (Harper 2011). Ten-year-old Hà fears the escape from her native land, not just because of the unknown she faces but because her father is still missing in the Vietnam War, and how will he find them if they move to America before he returns home? The poems are spare free verse but they pack deep emotion as Hà relates the details of her daily life in Vietnam, the struggles of the journey, including a stop at a tent city in Guam, and a stay in Florida awaiting sponsorship that eventually comes from Alabama. There she is seen as different and is mocked and tormented by some of her classmates for her lack of understanding of their customs. Some days are worse than others:
No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
peacetime in Alabama.
While some of the Vietnam vocabulary and customs are not fully explained, any unease the reader might feel will build empathy for the new language and world that Hà and her family face. And we can all sympathize with her frustration over the complexities of the rules of English grammar. There’s plenty of humor here, too. Hà’s penchant for sweets is delightful throughout, but especially when she shops for her mother and shaves a little weight or size off the requested quantities so that she will have a bit of money left over to secretly buy a pouch of toasted coconut or sugary friend dough…a girl after my own heart!
This is a gem of a book that will find a ready audience among “the new kids on the block” everywhere, but it will be embraced by an even wider audience that will gain an understanding of what some of their classmates have been through.
Lynn: What does it feel like to be a stranger? I’ve rarely found a book that brings the sense of this experience so strongly to life for young readers. The lovely free verse skillfully shows us situations that kids can readily connect with bringing Hà’s fear, confusion, embarrassment, and longing for home directly to the reader. Hà was a good student at home but in America the language and cultural barriers make her feel dumb. As someone who has lived in another country and struggled with the language, I found this element particularly evocative. My palms still get sweaty when I remember trying to call for repairs on something in our French apartment! And then there was the time I tried to dispute a parking ticket. Well, as Hà says:
So this is what dumb
Lai doesn’t shy away from issues that may raise a few eyebrows but which serve to further underscore the idea of cultural assumptions. Hà is a vivid and sympathetic character and readers will strongly connect with her struggles to adapt. This moving story will make an outstanding classroom read aloud and is sure to spark lively discussion.