Inside Out and Back Again–by Thanhha Lai

This was a fascinating book, and unexpected. I found myself much more deeply engaged than I thought I would be when I first started reading.

While the book is fiction, it’s based on the author’s own experience of fleeing Vietnam and beginning a new life in the United States. A 2012 Newbery Honor recipient, the book is aimed at young adults but provided this particular adult an engrossing read as well.

The format is as if we’re reading ten-year-old Hà’s own short, free-verse poems documenting her life in Saigon as the Vietnam War drew closer and closer, her family’s flight to a tent city in Guam, and the eventual move to Alabama after the family is connected with sponsors there. She writes about little things like the tree in her backyard in Vietnam, to big issues like starvation on the boats, and dealing with bullies in her new school in Alabama.

Having spent several years now volunteering with members of refugee communities here in my home town and across the country, plus having grown up with a Vietnamese foster sister and brother when my own family was a sponsor family in the 1980s, I found much of this book describing what I knew to be true for new arrivals as they struggled to adjust to our culture, society, language, clothing, and so forth. But it also provided much-needed depth to my understanding as I read about Hà’s struggles with feeling beholden to others for help, to missing little details about home, like that tree, and her own anger at going from being one of the smartest kids in her class back in Vietnam to feeling “stupid” in her new school because she didn’t know the language.

The book was honest, endearing, and revealing. I’d highly recommend this for anyone–but, since it is aimed at young adults, it’s a particularly good way to help kids become more aware of global issues at the same time as they become more aware of what their classmates and friends may have experienced in their own pasts.

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (Scholastic, 2012)

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