IntroductionThe 2011 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, is an graceful novel in verse, telling the story of a ten-year-old girl’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to her new home in the United States. The story is easy to follow, but there's enough going on to make it interesting. It addresses issues of loss, of longing for the familiar, as well as the main character’s struggles with being a girl in a heavily male family and culture.
Inside Out & Back Again: The StoryIt is 1975, and the Americans have pulled out of Vietnam, where ten-year-old Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers in the capital city Saigon. While they are not wealthy, and haven’t been since Hà’s father went missing while on a Navy assignment, they have a home, are able to get food, and have some comforts. Hà’s only real concerns are that she is a girl, which means she’s not allowed to do certain things like get up first on Tet (New Year’s Day), and wondering whether the mango tree that she grew from a seed will grow fruit.
As the North Vietnamese creep closer to Saigon, Hà’s life becomes increasingly harder. There are food shortages, and while Hà doesn’t experience any violence directly, she can sense that things are uneasy. Her uncle – her father’s brother – comes one afternoon, and offers them a chance to get out. Even though it means giving up hope that their father will be found, Hà and her family escape on a navy ship, hoping to be rescued.
The ship is crowded, and there is often not enough food or water for everyone on the ship. While the whole family is suffering from homesickness, Hà reaches out to comfort her next older brother because he had to leave the eggs that he was planning to hatch into chickens. In a tender moment, the baby chick he smuggled onto the ship died, and Hà gave up one of her prized possessions – a doll – to be buried in the sea with her brother’s chick.
Eventually, they are rescued by an American ship and taken to Guam, where they live in a refugee camp. There is more waiting, and hoping, until finally they are moved to a refugee camp in Florida. Once there, they need to wait for a sponsor, one that will be willing to take all five of them since Hà’s mother doesn’t want the family to be separated. They do find a sponsor, a man Hà believes to be a “cowboy” because of the hat he wears, and move to Alabama to begin their new life.
Adjusting to a new country, especially one where the language is difficult to grasp, is not easy for Hà. She often feels stupid at school because she doesn’t understand what the teacher or other children are saying. Because she doesn’t look like everyone else, she is bullied, sometimes physically. Slowly, as the year progresses, two things change her perspective about living in a new country.
First, her second older brother, who loves the martial arts of Bruce Lee, teaches Hà some moves so she can defend herself against the bullies. Second, she makes friends, both her age and a neighbor who is willing to help Hà with her language. While the story is not completely resolved, the ending is hopeful: ending on Tet, the family looks forward to a new life in the United States with promise.
Inside Out & Back Again: The AuthorThanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and lived there until she was 10. In 1975, when the North Vietnamese bombed Saigon, Lai and her family immigrated to Montgomery, Alabama. Lai has said that Hà’s story is partially based on her own life experiences. She now lives in New York City with her family, teaching at The New School. Inside Out & Back Again is Thanhha Lai's first book. (Sources: HarperCollins Thanhha Lai Author Page, National Book Award Interview)
Inside Out & Back Again: My RecommendationThe poetry in this book is gorgeous in its simplicity. It does pack an emotional punch, tackling an issue – that of refugees displaced by war – that isn’t often addressed in children’s literature, which is refreshing. However, because it’s not a complex structure, and because it often moves slowly, it’s not something I think many children would pick up on their own initiative. Additionally, there is a lack of a Vietnamese pronunciation guide, which is disappointing, since Lai uses many Vietnamese words throughout the book. I do think, however, that in spite of those shortcomings, the book is quite worth reading, and I would recommend it for ages 10-12. (HarperCollins, 2011. ISBN: 9780061962783)
Inside Out and Back Again is also available in paperback (Compare prices.), as an e-Book and as an audio book.
Related Resources From Your Guide Elizabeth KennedyIf your middle school and upper elementary age kids enjoy historical fiction, check out the books on my annotated list of award-winning historical fiction for middle grade readers. For recommended nonfiction, watch the video Nonfiction U.S. History Books for Middle Graders. If your tween is also starting to read books for teens, take a look at this annotated list of Top Teen Nonfiction.
If your child expresses an interest in learning more about Vietnam, here are some helpful resources from About.com: a map of Vietnam, Vietnam: Facts and History, Vietnames Cooking and Culture and Vietnamese Entrees & Main Courses.