Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

One of my summer reading goals is to read some books from my classroom library that I hadn't read before. Some are books my students love, which I'd like to be able to discuss with them.  Others are books that I'd heard are great, but without personal knowledge was having a hard time "selling" to my students.  

Inside Out and Back Again is a book I got because it is an award winner and a great #WeNeedDiverseBooks choice, but I hadn't found time to read it, and none of my students picked it up.  I was looking for a quick read after making my way through Game of Thrones, and decided to give it a try.

The basic set-up:
  • It's a novel in verse.  
  • It is told from the point of view of Há, a 10 year old girl, and covers one full year of her life, 1975-76.
  • During that time, Há and her family leave Saigon and come to Alabama.

This was fascinating and moving.  I was in elementary school during and after this time period, and I remember the so-called "boat people" on the news.  There's a moment when Há's teacher has her recite the alphabet and numbers in English, and she is humiliated to have the class clap for her, as if this is an accomplishment, when she reads and writes very well in Vietnamese.  It reminded me of the time my 7th grade English teacher pointed out that Tranh had the highest overall average on the spelling tests, and she had only been learning English for a few years.  He meant to praise her, but now I wonder how that felt to her.

Há is dealing with a lot-- her family's grief and worry over her MIA father, loss of her homeland, fear and hunger during their exodus, bullies, prejudice, learning a new language.  She is sustained by the love of her family, her own intelligence and courage, and friends and allies that come into her life.  She also has a core of stubborn strength.  In the very first poem, she is mad that one of her brothers is supposed to get up early on the first day of the new year, because only male feet will bring luck, so she sneaks her toe out of bed and taps it against the floor before anyone else is awake.  You have to love a kid with that kind of spirit.  

The author, Thanhha Lai, based the story on her own memories.  Há's voice is fictional, but her experiences are real, and that sense of reality and specificity grounds the book.

My nine-year old asked me what I was reading, and then asked me to read one of the poems to her.  When I finished the first one, she asked a few questions, then said, "Another?"  We read about four before I put the book down.  It is one of those books that are completely G in every way except for the themes.  No on-screen deaths or bloody violence, but a pervasive sense of loss, a background of war, and some intense bullying.  No swearing, but again, the nasty things people say and do to Há and her family are actually far more offensive.  No sexuality.  It would definitely be appropriate for some younger readers.  I actually do want to read it with my kids, who have their own childhood losses and immigration to process.  

To book-talk it, I might start by telling classes my memories of southeast Asian refugees coming to Oregon, give them the basic set-up, then read them one of the poems from the scary period Há's family spent on a navy ship.  Then I'll ask, "How do you think people in small town Alabama responded to this family moving into town?"  and we can chat about that a bit.  

Four stars.  


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