Inside Out & Back Again. By Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins Publishers, February 2011. 272 pages. $15.99
I was excited to read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai because it was not a book I would normally read on my own. I was looking forward to reading something different. Ha, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl, tells her story in a series of journal entries written in free verse. The book spans one tumultuous year of Ha’s life in 1975, as the Vietnam war ends and she and her family flee Saigon for the United States.
I am not often drawn to novels written in verse, though usually once I start reading them I am enchanted by the language and completely drawn into the story. That is exactly what happened as I began reading Inside Out and Back Again. The book starts out slow, as we are welcomed into Ha’s home in Saigon and the stage is set for the war that is drawing closer. As soon as the option to leave their home is presented, I was hooked. Would they leave everything behind for a chance at an unknown future?
Lai’s verse packs a great intensity and imagery into the sparse language. It is truly beautiful to read how much she can say with so few words. Many of the short poems and phrases stick in my mind long after reading them. The imagery of the papaya tree Ha had to leave behind at home and the ripening papaya that is Ha’s favorite food weave through the pages as a symbol of hope and renewal. Which is how I felt as the book ended, so full of hope. Even through the difficult parts of the story, as Ha is bullied at school and her family shunned and discriminated against in their new home, as she struggles to learn English and adjust to her new surroundings, Ha is always able to cling to this hope. And because of that, we the readers do to.
Lai writes in an afterward that the story of Ha was similar to what she experienced as an immigrant to America after the Vietnam War. For all the children who have experienced similar situations, I am so happy that this book has been written and that it is receiving so much Newbery buzz. It truly deserves it. I can wonder if this book will be widely read by children, but for some reason that doesn’t bother me so much, because I know that the children who do seek out and read this book will be richly rewarded with the moving experience Lai has given us through the story of Ha.