The Children’s Book Review | April 26, 2011
by Thanhha Lai
Reading level: Ages 8-12
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (February 22, 2011)
Award: 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
What to expect: Vietnamese Americans, Emigration and immigration, Immigrants, Vietnam, Alabama
How much do we know about those around us? This is the question that debut novelist Thanhha Lai challenges her readers with.
Based on Lai’s own personal experience as a Vietnamese refugee, Inside Out & Back Again is a poignant story divided into four parts using a series of poems that chronicle the life of 10-year-old Hà, a child–refugee from Vietnam, during the year 1975—the Fall of Saigon. Along with her mother and three brothers (her father has been missing in action for nine years), Hà travels by boat to a tent city in Guam, is moved to Florida and then finds herself living in Alabama sponsored by an “American cowboy” and his wife. In Alabama, the family are treated as outcasts and forced to integrate quickly through language, food, and religion, to be accepted as a part of the community.
Adjustments to Hà’s new life are delivered through smells and tastes and touch. In “Part One: Saigon,” a verse titled “Two More Papayas” gives Hà’s delectable description of her most cherished fruit. In “Part Three: Alabama,” a verse titled “Not the Same,” which is followed by “But Not Bad,” showcases the bitter differences between the comfort of her precious birth city and the emotional challenges of her new home in Alabama, combined with the acceptance of change.
Two More Papayas
between a mango and a pear.
Soft as a yam
after three easy,
Not the Same
“Three pouches of papaya
Not the same
I throw all in the trash.”
But Not Bad
“… I wake up at faint light,
guilt heavy on my chest.
I head toward the trash can.
on the dining table
on a plate
sit strips of papaya
gooey and damp,
having been soaked in hot water.
The sugar has melted off
Not the same,
but not bad
Told with pure honesty, emotions run freely from verse to verse and page to page. Hà’s voice is clear, allowing readers to make a leap from sympathy to deep seeded empathy by experiencing her joy, pain, anger, frustration, loyalties, challenges, loss, and determination. The clarity of Hà’s self-awareness and development toward self-actualization is reminiscent of Susan Patron‘s character Lucky, also a 10-year-old girl, from the Newbery winner (2007) The Higher Power of Lucky (2006). Both characters suffer loss, make mistakes, struggle through emotional challenges, and, through sheer determination, intrinsically blossom.
Lai has created an emotionally powerful novel inspired by her own memories and each word is to be savored, pondered, experienced, and felt. Beautiful!
Add this book to your collection: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
If you have been moved by the Inside Out and Back Again book written by Thanhha Lai as much as us, take a look at the Newbery Medal winner and honor books that joined Inside Out and Back Again in 2012.
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