Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

One of my favorite books of 2009 was Ann E. Burg's All the Broken Pieces. So well liked, in fact, that it snagged a Mock Newbery Honor at our library. It also made the Mock Printz but lost in our final honor book vote. I mention this novel in verse because I fondly thought about it while reading the fantastic Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.

 Inside Out & Back Again takes place from Tet 1975 - Tet 1976. Unlike Matt in All the Broken Pieces who was given up by his mother to fleeing American soldiers, Ha leaves Saigon on a ship with her mother and three older brothers. Her American-trained Navy father has been missing for 10 years. Also unlike Matt, Ha does not have guilt-ridden memories of the horror of war. She loves Vietnam. When her Alabama teacher shows the class iconic images of war-ravaged Vietnam, Ha wishes she would have shown something different.
She should have shown
something about
papayas and Tet.


No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
over
peacetime in Alabama.

Everything is seen through Ha's young eyes and the author's ability to express Ha's emotions so acutely through the brief poems is remarkable. In the poem "Feel Dumb", Ha is asked to recite the alphabet and when she finishes the teacher instructs the students clap for her. How infuriating for a student who knows fractions and then on top of that she has to endure the forced pity acknowledgement of her classmates.
So this is
what dumb
feels like.

I hate, hate, hate it.

I think young readers (9-12) will very easily follow Ha along on her American journey. There's racism and fear and hope. And humor! I loved when Ha would bemoan English grammar rules because who as a child had not been been stumped by plurals like "knives"?  I hope that a young reader, or really a reader of any age, takes a moment to reflect on what it would be like to be a refugee and an immigrant. What it would be like to find yourself in a culture so completely unlike your own? Here's a good exercise: Ha wears a nightgown to school one day. Now imagine how that would play out in your 4th grade class.

So yes, look for this one on the Mock Newbery lists.


Read an interview with the author on Kirkus Reviews. Much of Ha's story is her own.

Fun Fact!: the author received a journalism degree at UT Austin. Another outstanding author writing for young people to add to the Austin ranks.

2 comments:

libraryann said...

hahaha it IS on our (so far) list!

joanna said...

Sounds like a good list is brewing. Share when you can!