Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again

By Thanhha Lai
Middle grade
HarperCollins, 2011
ISBN: 9780061962783; ISBN10: 0061962783
Awards/recognitions: *2012 Newbery Honor Winner *2011 National Book Award

I always marvel when a novel is so beautiful you want to re-read it. This is the case with Inside Out & Back Again, the story of 10 year-old Ha who leaves Viet Nam with her mother and brothers after the fall of Saigon and finds herself in the inexplicable world of Alabama.

The novel is written in free verse – which makes for short, stunning scenes that fill all of your senses. Each one builds on the next, capturing in skilled brush strokes the heart of what it means to lose a father to war, a homeland, and – for a young girl – a sense of herself. Throughout are the sights and smells of Viet Nam as we watch the family pray for their father with incense at their altar, long for papayas and fried eels, and force smiles on their faces for the new year to bring proper luck. Thanhha Lai gives us a Viet Nam to love and cherish.

Ha is a mighty girl and a memorable strong girl for so many reasons. She is flawed, prone to mischief, and sometimes disagreeable – the way most interesting girls are. She can’t help but rebel against the notion that only male feet can bring good luck to a house on Tet, the New Year. She pinches a classmate and complains about her bossy brothers. But she also comes across as honest and good hearted, particularly as she senses the grief of her mother and – most particularly –  Brother Khoi. Her journey to be accepted by American classmates is at times heartbreaking, but also at times funny and uplifting.

History is best served up to young readers through the stories of the people who lived it. How wonderful that in this case, we get a memorable strong girl to lead us back. MM

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