Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back AgainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins Children’s, 2011. 272 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 8-12. ISBN: 9780061962783.

2011 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature
2012 Newbery Honor Book

Inside Out and Back Again is the first novel in verse I’ve read. The verse is very effective. It is the voice of Ha, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl. In telling her story she has no need of long narrative passages, she can convey what she needs to in the spare verse of the novel.

Ha lives in Saigon in 1975 with her mother and her three older brothers. Her father was in the Vietnamese Navy and disappeared nine years ago. Saigon is about to fall to the Communists in the North. Ha’s mother is given the option of taking her family away from Vietnam. She remembers what North Vietnam was like after Ho Chi Minh came to power. She doesn’t want that kind of life for her children. So the family takes the bare necessities, plus one favorite item for each person, and climbs aboard a Vietnamese naval vessel.  Ha mourns all they have left behind in Vietnam. She especially misses the papaya tree she was growing. The family spends a long time on the ship in very cramped quarters. Then they are in a tent city on Guam, then a tent city in Florida. They stay in the tent city in Florida for quite some time. Finally, Ha’s mother realizes she must say they are Christian in order to find a sponsor. Shortly after she identifies the family as Christian, a man from Alabama, whom Ha calls “The Cowboy” sponsors the family and moves them to Alabama.

Ha must now set about learning to live in a new world. She felt smart in Vietnam. In Alabama she doesn’t know English and feels stupid at school. Kids tease her and chase her home. They try to pull her hair. She eats lunch in the bathroom so no one will tease her. For Christmas Ha gets what she believes is a dress. She wears it to school only to have kids laugh at her because it’s a nightgown.

Ha’s voice is gentle and resilient.  She will make it in this new world, no matter how foreign it seems. It is the politics of being an immigrant in the United States, a country made up of immigrants.

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