Copyright date: 2011
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Reason for Reading: It just won the National Book Award, Young People’s Literature.
Award Won: 2011 National Book Award
Hà is a ten-year-old girl living in Vietnam in 1975. The story begins on Tét, the first day of the New Year. Her family’s tradition requires that a male family member rise early to bless the house for a year of good luck. Hà doesn’t like it when she’s told girls can’t do something, so she secretly touches the floor before her older brother.
Inside Out & Back Again follows Hà and her family for a year. It’s a very tough year for them and Hà is convinced her action caused all the bad luck.
Shortly after Tét the war escalates and the family escapes to a boat just prior to the fall of Saigon. The ship is crowded, food is scarce, and it floats for weeks until finally rescued by the Americans.
Hà and her family eventually land in Alabama. Their sponsor helps Hà’s mother and three brothers find jobs and helps Hà enroll in school. Showing up at school is the beginning of the true torment for Hà. She’s not just the new girl, she looks very different and barely speaks English. Children can be very cruel to each other and it’s definitely evident in this story. How Hà and her family survives is makes for a heartwarming story.
I loved Inside Out & Back Again. The author created a little girl who won my heart. I cried and laughed and cried some more. She totally captured the emotions of an average ten-year-old girl in addition to how she emotionally handled the traumatic events Hà experienced. Each one of Hà’s family members was also well developed.
The fun part for me was the writing. It was written in free verse. I was amazed at how complete the story was with such sparse writing. Let me give you an example,
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.
then every centimeter
Everyone knows the ship
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.
Doesn’t that little bit paint a complete picture in your mind? The whole story is told in this manner. It works because it allows the reader to use his/her imagination to visualize what’s happening. Perfect for children and adults as well.
The publisher suggested this book for Grade 3/Age 8 and up. I’d suggest a bit older, like at least 9 or 10. The content tends to be subtle and sparse and, in my opinion, would better suit a more sophisticated reader. This would definitely make a great book to read with a child. It should lead to great conversations. If you don’t have a child to read with, read it on your own. Just have a couple of tissues handy.
Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the war. The character of Hà is based on her own life and many of the facts were inspired by what happened to her. In the Author’s Notes at the end of the book Ms. Lai said she wanted to remember the facts but she also “worked hard to capture [the main character’s] emotional life.” She succeeded quite well. I’m glad National Book Award committee saw that too.