National Book Award, Young People's Literature, 2011
Vietnam-born author Thanhha Lai bursts onto the literary scene with Inside Out & Back Again—her National Book Award-winning debut. Written in rich, free-verse poems, this moving tale follows a young Vietnamese girl as she leaves her war-torn homeland for America in 1975. With Saigon about to fall to the communists, 10-year-old Hà, her mother, and brothers are forced to flee their beloved city and head to the United States. But living in a new country isn’t easy for Hà, and she finds adapting to its strange customs ever challenging.
©2011 Thanhha Lai (P)2012 Recorded Books, LLC
Many students in the United States know the pain and loneliness of being the “new kid” at a school. But most Americans move from one city to another, or one state to another—not one country to another, and one culture to another. But reading allows children to learn about experience they’ve never had. And really good books allow children to feel the feelings described. Inside Out And Back Again is one of those tales. One can’t read it without changing as a person because the reader truly feels the feelings of Ha, the main character.
The story begins in Saigon, Viet Nam just before the city falls in the early 1970’s. Ha, her mother and brothers flee the country and are sponsored by an American family in Alabama. The first half of the story takes place in Viet Nam and the second half takes place in the US.
Ha goes through are real human emotions as she navigates the types of things all kids must endure when they are thrust into a new situation, only Ha experiences them a much greater extreme.
This is a wonderful story, well written, emotionally tight. Fifth through seventh graders will enjoy it.
Ha suffers the prejudice and crulty of the children at her school. She suffers the confusion of not knowing the language. And she muddles through the difficulties of having to eat unfamiliar foods and missing the treats she enjoyed in her native land. She also experiences the kindness of neighbors and learns the wonder of building new friendships.
I selected this book because it has been talked up a lot in the intermediate/young adult category. I have a feeling it is nostalgia in some ways pushing this selection. I don't feel intermediate, even most young adults, have the historical reference points to carry them through this story. The story is slow moving, without much conflict if you don't have the prior knowledge to infer the conflict and drama that has torn Vietnam apart. Even the bullying scenes are written with such emotional detachment that the reader can not connect to the story.
The narrator of the audio version is very monotone and I had problems even distinguishing when other characters were speaking, which wouldn't help readers struggling with the story to begin with. I feel like I am being offensive by complaining about the narrator's audio as this story actually reflects her own experience. However, for all the discussion about emotion at the end of the audio, there is none in her delivery.
Looking at it from an adult stand point, as one with personal connections with the Vietnam War, it peaked my interest in reading more about Vietnam, but I was left wanting to give up on this book and unsatisfied with the abrupt ending.
I can't imagine any of my students enjoying this book, even though it might be a culturally responsible choice for awards.
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