My contribution is a review of Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2011), and was a Newbery Honor book (2012), so I knew it would be very, very good. What I didn’t know at the outset was that it was written in free verse.
No one would believe me but at times I
would choose wartime in Saigon over
peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by…and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape…and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.
Inside Out and Back Again is the story of one girl’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to Alabama. It is also a thoughtful, beautiful look at the impossible choices people make in wartime, and a testament to the human spirit. And, lest you think it all noble and perfect, Hà’s ‘voice,’ as written in free verse, is always genuine, and sprinkled with her slightly vengeful humor. For example:
I can’t make my brothers
go live elsewhere,
but I can
hide their sandals.
It comes down to truth. Hà is a fictional girl, yes, but her experience, her petty (and not so petty) cares, her worries and struggles are those of any person – not some hero with abilities far above our own. Her very human responses to the terrible circumstances of life, and then the hidden blessings, combine to make her relatable and dear. This is a book to make you weep with injustice, and then marvel at what may be overcome.
Strictly on the poetry side of things, Inside Out and Back Again is a simple and quick read. The most complex part (for me) was puzzling out how things would sound in Vietnamese. I eventually resorted to an online translator for a couple of the names – words I was reading over and over. It is beautiful in its simplicity – never doubt that. Lai’s spare writing suits the story, as does the occasional wry and biting humor.
Recommended for: those who enjoy outstanding middle grade fiction, and especially historical fiction, fans of free verse, and anyone who may appreciate a beautiful tale of strength in the midst of sorrow and change.