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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Nelson Mandela

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s, 2013. 40 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 4-8.  ISBN: 9780061783746.

When I was young, South Africa lived under apartheid, a system that segregated whites and blacks. Living conditions for the blacks were horrendous. The White government responded to protest rallies with violence. And Nelson Mandela, a black man who was the face of resistance to apartheid, sat in jail encouraging hope, and continued protests. The rest of the world looked on and tried to figure out what they could do to end the situation in South Africa. In the United States, protesters encouraged investors to divest themselves of any stock in companies that did business in South Africa. The world looked to the hero, Nelson Mandela. Within the year after the Berlin wall came down, apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Great change was indeed possible.

Kadir Nelson’s strikingly beautiful book about Nelson Mandela pictures him, above all, as a man of incredible strength. In each of the illustrations, Mandela is powerful. It appears there is no weakness in him, nor any doubt about the necessity of ending apartheid. The book follows Mandela from his boyhood home to law school to his political work in trying to end apartheid.  When the government issued an arrest warrant for him, he went underground and continued to organize protests against apartheid. He was caught and jailed for 27 years. Then apartheid ended and Mandela was freed. He became the first black president of South Africa. Mandela’s view is that in this new South Africa all races are welcomed.

The story is told in Kadir Nelson’s strong illustrations and in short sections of prose that read almost like poetry. In the back of the book is a two-page spread detailing Nelson Mandela’s biography.

To this day, Nelson Mandela is, in my mind, a symbol of refusal to accept oppression. Kadir Nelson’s book will introduce new generations to Nelson Mandela the man and Nelson Mandela the symbol.

Other Blog Reviews: Richie’s Picks; Waking Brain Cells; Rhapsody in Books Weblog; Kid Lit Frenzy; Wrapped in Foil; Creative Madness Mama