Inside Out and Back Again, an autobiographical novel written in verse, captures one year in the life of 10-year-old Kim Hà. Her unforgettable story begins and ends with Tét, the first day of the Vietnamese lunar calendar. It’s February 1975 and Saigon is about to fall.
Hà flees Vietnam with her mother and two brothers, boarding a ship in a nearby port. One poignant poem lists some of what they must leave behind: “Ten gold-rimmed glasses . . . Brother Quant’s report cards . . . Vines of jasmine.” After weeks at sea and a stay in a refugee camp on Guam, Hà’s family ends up in Alabama, where a sponsor is found.
Holding tight to the 10-year-old point of view, first-time author Thanhha Lai draws on memories of her own childhood, when her family fled Vietnam after the war and moved to Alabama. The reader will smell the incense, long for the taste of fresh papaya and feel the rocking of the ship. The difficulty of learning English, coupled with Hà’s desire for perfection, makes assimilation nearly impossible, especially when some of the kids in her class cruelly tease her about her hair, her accent and the flatness of her face. She grows up, tries to learn the art of making do from her mother, and leans on her brothers and her tutor, Mrs. Washington. And she learns to fly-kick like Bruce Lee.
Lai’s spare poetry, full of emotion and infused with humor, is accessible to young children and adults alike. This moving and beautifully told story is a must-read for anyone who works with children new to the country.
Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2011 Fall
Recounting events that resemble her own family's 1975 flight from Saigon, Lai pens a novel in vividly imagined verse. In Alabama, Ha is daunted by challenges including mastering idiosyncratic English. Many people are cruelly antagonistic, but Ha soon finds allies at school. Spare language captures the sensory disorientation of changing cultures as well as a refugee's complex emotions and kaleidoscopic loyalties. Copyright 2011 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2011 #2
Recounting events that resemble her own family's 1975 flight from Saigon and first months in the United States, Lai pens a novel in vividly imagined verse. Each brief poem encapsulates a mood and experience of that year. As the Vietnam War nears its end in April, ten-year-old Ha's "Birthday Wishes" include "Wish Mother would stop / chiding me to stay calm / which makes it worse" and that "Father [who's missing in action] would come home." Registering for school in Alabama in August, Ha encounters "a woman who / pats my head / while shaking her own. / I step back, / hating pity, /...the pity giver / feels better, / never the pity receiver." Such condescension is new to Ha and her brothers, all excellent students, as is being daunted by challenges like the urgent need to master idiosyncratic English. Meanwhile, Brother Vu takes odd jobs; Quang (who once said, "One cannot justify war / unless each side / flaunts its own / blind conviction") repairs cars. Many neighbors and classmates, with their own blind convictions, are cruelly antagonistic, but Ha soon finds allies at school and in English-tutor Ms. Washington. Lai's spare language captures the sensory disorientation of changing cultures as well as a refugee's complex emotions and kaleidoscopic loyalties. That Ms. Washington's son died in Vietnam underlines the disparity between nations' quarrels and their citizens' humanity, suggesting this as a provocative companion to Katherine Paterson's Park's Quest (rev. 7/88). joanna rudge long Copyright 2011 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2011 January #2
An enlightening, poignant and unexpectedly funny novel in verse is rooted in the author's childhood experiences. In Saigon in 1975, 10-year-old Kim HÃ celebrates Tet (New Year) with her mother and three older brothers; none of them guesses at the changes the Year of the Cat will bring. (HÃ 's father's been MIA from the South Vietnamese Navy for nine years.) On the eve of the fall of Saigon, they finally decide they must escape. Free verse poems of, usually, just two to three pages tell the story. With the help of a friend, the family leaves, and they find themselves trapped at sea awaiting rescue. Only one of her brothers speaks English, but they pick America as their destination and eventually find a sponsor in Alabama. Even amid the heartbreak, the narrative is shot through with humor. HÃ misunderstands much about her new home: Surely their sponsor, who always wears his cowboy hat, must have a horse somewhere. In a school full of strangers and bullies, she struggles to learn a language full of snake's hissing and must accept that she can no longer be at the head of her class...for now. In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven't found themselves in a strange new country. (Historical fiction/verse. 9-12)Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Narrating in sparse free-verse poems, 10-year-old Hà brings a strong, memorable voice to the immigrant experience as her family moves from war-torn South Vietnam to Alabama in 1975. First-time author Lai, who made the same journey with her family, divides her novel into four sections set in Vietnam, "At Sea," and the last two in Alabama. Lai gives insight into cultural and physical landscapes, as well as a finely honed portrait of Hà's family as they await word about Hà's POW father and face difficult choices (awaiting a sponsor family, "...Mother learns/ sponsors prefer those/ whose applications say ‘Christians.'/ Just like that/ Mother amends our faith,/ saying all beliefs/ are pretty much the same"). The taut portrayal of Hà's emotional life is especially poignant as she cycles from feeling smart in Vietnam to struggling in the States, and finally regains academic and social confidence. A series of poems about English grammar offer humor and a lens into the difficulties of adjusting to a new language and customs ("Whoever invented English/ should be bitten/ by a snake"). An incisive portrait of human resilience. Ages 8-12. (Mar.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC
Gr 4-6--A story based on the author's childhood experiences. Hà is 10 when Saigon falls and her family flees Vietnam. First on a ship, then in two refugee camps, and then finally in Alabama, she and her family struggle to fit in and make a home. As Hà deals with leaving behind all that is familiar, she tries to contain her temper, especially in the face of school bullies and the inconsistencies of the English language. She misses her papaya tree, and her family worries about friends and family remaining in Vietnam, especially her father, who was captured by Communist forces several years earlier. Told in verse, each passage is given a date so readers can easily follow the progression of time. Sensory language describing the rich smells and tastes of Vietnam draws readers in and contrasts with Hà's perceptions of bland American food, and the immediacy of the narrative will appeal to those who do not usually enjoy historical fiction. Even through her frustration with her new life and the annoyances of her three older brothers, her voice is full of humor and hope.--Jennifer Rothschild, Prince George's County Memorial Library System, Oxon Hill, MD[Page 164]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.