Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Inside Out and Back Again - Review

Title: Inside Out and Back Again
Author: Thanhha Lai
Source:  My work (school library)

Goodreads Summary:

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. 

My thoughts:

I cannot sing the praises for this book enough. I thought this book was excellent.

We had purchased this book for our library's collection because it is a 2012 Newbery Award winner, without knowing too much about it.  All we knew is what we had learned from the Scholastic Book Fair video we watched before the book fair in the fall, and it was a tiny little sneak peek.

Inside Out and Back Again is written in verse, first person point of view.  I don't usually read books that are written this way, and I was hesitant at first but very quickly loved it. Lai's imagery is so descriptive, you can visualize Saigon before the war, taste the foods Lai describes, and feel the emotions of Hà as she crosses the ocean with her family on her way to a foreign land and also how she felt about living in Alabama.

Hà, her mother, and her brothers were living as well as they could in Saigon during the war. Ha had her papaya tree, her brother Khôi had his chicks, but they all were missing their father and husband who was MIA. Hà is an untraditional girl at this time, who does what she wants and is stubborn and opinionated.  She doesn't like to listen to her mother that often, and on Tet, when it is unlucky for anyone but the oldest male to touch the floor first, Hà wakes up first and in a moment of rebellion, allows her toe to touch the ground. This reminded me so much of myself when I was about her age; at church one Christmas I demanded to be a shepherd because I insisted one of them could have been a female. When Saigon falls, Hà and her family join the mad rush to leave the country.  They manage to get space on a ship headed to the U.S.  

They arrive in Alabama. Alabama was so different from her homeland, the food, the religion, the people - and Hà and her family were just as different to the Alabama community they moved to. Hà endures bullying daily at school, where she looks different from all the other kids, and doesn't understand the language. She doesn't understand their taunts, but she does understand that it is directed at her, that she is being made fun of.  One part that I found particularly interesting is when Hà is learning English, she comments on how difficult the language is, with all its weird rules. Interestingly, for me, My father is a Vietnam vet, and I grew up hearing phrases he picked up while he was there, such as mau, di di mau (not sure on spelling etc) which my dad would say when he wanted us to move quickly.

Throughout the story, papaya is a symbol of home and hope to Hà.  She loves her tree in Vietnam, and when she has to leave it behind just as it starts to bear fruit, it breaks her heart.  Papaya is her favorite food, and one not found in  Alabama during that time. When she is given dried papaya by her friend and tutor, she at first rejects it, saying that it tastes bad. Later, her mom soaks it as a surprise for Hà, and Hà admits that maybe it is not all bad, signifying that Hà is beginning to accept her new life in a positive manner. Or so I believe.

Hà talked so often of food, especially Vietnamese food, that I am going to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant this weekend. I will let you know how it is!

I thought this book told a story that could be very heavy and sad in a beautiful, light way.  I think the subject itself is one I do not see often, especially in middle grade books. I recommend this to everyone. 


  1. This sounds like a fantastic book! I love reading books about other cultures and about the immigrant experience. I will be adding this to my TBR list! I don't read a lot of verse novels but I will definitely give this one a try. Thanks for your review!

    1. I loved this book. So great. It is a fictionalized account of Thanhha Lai's life, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for her.

  2. I love novels in verse! I coach speech at our local high school and we love taking cutting from novels in verse for the poetry category. I am always on the look out for great ones, thanks!

    Marlene Detierro (Austin Search Engine Optimization)


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