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Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
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it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, kids-fiction, poetry, coming-of-age

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

I was in the US Navy in 1975, headed toward the Philippines when our squadron personnel were off-loaded in Hawaii so that our carrier could rush to the coast of Vietnam to pick up refugees fleeing South Vietnam before it fell to Communist forces. So this story has particular personal meaning.

Like most Americans, I owe the life I live to the courage and hope of immigrant ancestors. The powerfulness of this story rings true. The US is a nation of immigrants. The way we treat immigrants speaks volumes about our values and honor. I hope this book makes readers think about how immigrants, other human beings, not so different from ourselves, are treated.

Consider this passage, as the family tries to flee Saigon:

"We climb on
and claim a space
of two straw mats
under the deck,
enough for us five
to lie side by side.

By sunset our space
is one straw mat,
enough for us five
to huddle together.

Bodies cram
every centimeter
below deck,
then every centimeter
on deck.

Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.

But no one
is heartless enough
to say
stop
because what if
they had been
stopped
before their turn?"

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is an amazing first novel based on the author's escape from Vietnam in 1975. The book has four sections: Saigon, At Sea, Alabama, and From Now On. Written in narrative verse, it is a length that should not frighten middle grade readers, yet is full of meaning, information and insights.

Choosing the narrative verse form makes sense as the best way to tell the story of a 10 year old immigrant not fluent in English as the story begins, resulting in interesting phrases and thoughts. Narrative verse is not my favorite format but this really worked for me.

In the course of the novel Lai is able to teach kids about Vietnamese society. Having just read Ten Mice for Tet I knew a bit about the holiday, but I learn even more from Hà, including the reasons for certain customs.

The voice of the narrator ten-year-old Hà is strong and works well because of her anger at the situation faced by her and her family. They leave not knowing if their father is dead or alive. They are poor, must rely on strangers, don't speak English, and are feared, teased and disliked by some. Personally, Hà is furious at being harrassed by classmates, being considered stupid since she can't speak English, and having few friends. Thanhha Lai does a wonderful job of writing from the point of view of a ten year old immigrant, focused on her thoughts, fears and wishes.

I wish the cover was more realistic looking and less "girly", and that there were more resources listed in the back concerning the history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. This book is highly recommended for school and public library collections.

I was fortunate enough to get a copy at BEA and get it signed by the author.

For ages 9 to 13, Vietnam War, Vietnam, immigration, race, religion, intolerance, emmigration, refugees, bullying, historical fiction, and fans of Thanhha Lai.
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Reading Progress

May 1, 2011 – Shelved
July 9, 2011 – Started Reading
Finished Reading
January 2, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
January 2, 2012 – Shelved as: kids-fiction
January 2, 2012 – Shelved as: poetry
January 2, 2012 – Shelved as: coming-of-age

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