There’s been a lot of buzz about Thanhha Lai’s beautiful novels-in-verse, which I finally got around to reading.
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Harper, 2011.
It’s the middle of the Vietnam War. 10-year-old Hà lives with her mother and four older brothers in beautiful Saigon, where the tree in their back yard grows delicious papaya. Hà’s father, a soldier, has not been heard from in some time. But when Saigon falls, they must escape, taking only what they can carry, even knowing that he might come to their house looking for them and not be able to find them. The boat ride to America is crowded, stinky, and hungry. They find that they must say they are Christians to find a sponsor and be allowed to stay. Once they try to settle in near their host family, things are still difficult – there is plenty of bullying and misunderstanding, both between Hà and her new classmates, and among the family as they all find different ways to fit in. It’s based on the author’s own experience as a child, told in lyrical poems that describe the small details but convey the big picture all the more effectively.
Is the Vietnam War taught in schools these days? I remember commenting on how little was said about it in my own high school days. While the United States may not have reached the consensus on it that makes for easy inclusion in textbooks, this is a really important period of history. Lai’s story bypasses the politics from the American side, focusing instead on her very personal story with its rare and valuable perspective. And for all that it is her own story, the experience of leaving home, of missing loved ones, and struggling to fit into a new place is one that will resonate with readers. Because the content is somewhat difficult, I’d recommend it for upper elementary kids and up.