Reading Is Good For You

Book Reviews, Literary News, and Thoughts on Life

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

I have to give props to School Library Journal for putting on the Battle of the Kids Books, because without this annual event I would never have read this gem of a book. Without having even picked it up, Inside Out & Back Again has three strikes against it: I read very few Middle Grade titles (though with one of my nieces reaching that age bracket, I might start), the Vietnam war era has never had a big draw for me, and I’m not the biggest fan of novels in verse/poetry in general (though I can appreciate the cleverness it must take for one to write a novel in this condensed format).

It didn’t take me long to get past my preconceived notions about this book and begin to appreciate it for its finer points. The writing is beautifully poetic, as one would expect it to be, while remaining authentic in terms of how a ten year old speak. The way Hà describes her new classmates in Alabama is but one example of the  loveliness of her internal voice:

Fire hair on skin dotted with spots.

Fuzzy dark hair on skin shiny as lacquer.

Hair the color of root on milky skin.

Lots of braids on milk chocolate.

White hair on a pink boy.

Honey hair with orange ribbons on see-through skin.

Hair with barrettes in all colors on bronze bread.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Hà is a delightful character — a bit of a pistol, as my mother would say — and it was a joy to hear her quips about learning the English language (“Whoever invented English should be bitten by a snake.”) and her observances of American culture (“. . . a coming holiday when Americans eat a turkey the size of a baby.”) and her sassy interactions with her mother. In the same respect, it broke my heart to witness the horrible manner in which the majority of her neighbors and classmates treated her simply because of her foreignness and being a reminder of a terrible war that they would rather forget (but, oh, how it warmed my heart to see the resilience of Ha’s family and the loving way in which they banded together to support one another during this trying time). Once again, this treatment of the immigrant experience struck me as very authentic, which is natural, given that this is essentially the author’s account of her own immigration from Vietnam to America at the war’s end.

Having also not read Heart and Soul, the round-one competitor of Inside Out & Back Again in the Battle of the Kids’ Books, I don’t know which has the greater likelihood of winning the judge’s vote, but I know which book I’ll be rooting for — unless, of course, I like Heart and Soul even better than this book (let’s face it, though, it would have to be a pretty spectacular book to surpass my adoration of Inside Out & Back Again).

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