Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again

Author: Thanhha Lai

Publisher: HarperCollins

Copyright date: 2011

Pages: 272

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Reason for Reading: It just won the National Book Award, Young  People’s Literature.

Rating: A

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.

My Thoughts:

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.

Bodies cram

every centimeter

below deck,

then every centimeter

on deck.

Everyone knows the ship

could sink,

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.

About the Author:

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.


About Margot

I'm also known as Joyfully Retired. I love to talk. I love to talk about books I've read, movies I've seen, places I've traveled to, people (especially my children and grandchildren), and Food. On the Quirky Girls Read blog I'm trying to read all the books that have won the major awards and then, of course, talk about them.
This entry was posted in Award Winners, Fiction, Posts by Margot and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I love books written in verse and thought this book was wonderful. I agree with you that it’s for a little bit older audience because I think the reader needs some knowledge of Vietnam to really understand it.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful book. I definitely will try to find it at the library. Great review!

  3. jehara says:

    This sounds like a very powerful book. I like knowing that is based off of the author’s experiences. It makes it even that more moving.

  4. kaye says:

    the book sounds lovely–I’ve got to read this one.

  5. Your beautiful review has me wanting to read this one immediately and the best thing ever is that I have a copy of this one in my middle school library! I’m sending myself an email right now to pull it on Monday so I can read it next week!!!

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