Inside Out & Back Again

Two reviews in one day?  Can it be?  Well, obviously it can.  After finishing Rapture earlier today, I was in the mood for something a little less anxiety-inducing, so I started reading another of the nominees for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.  I thought a book written for children would surely be a lighter read that a YA novel dealing with a possible apocalypse.  Yeah…not so much. 

The book I chose to read was Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, which tells about a year in the life of a young girl in 1975.  The girl, Hà, leaves everything she’s ever known in South Vietnam in the hopes of a better life in America.  This book, a novel in verse, was a super-fast read, but it definitely shed some light on what Vietnamese immigrants, particularly children, may have faced when they escaped a war-torn—but familiar—Vietnam for a new home that was often more frightening that what they left behind.  This story is even more real because it draws on the author’s own experiences.  Inside Out & Back Again is a powerful read that I won’t soon forget.

Ten-year-old Hà and her family know that change is coming.  War has torn their country apart and claimed one of their own.  Although they are reluctant to leave Vietnam behind, there seems to be no other choice.  Hà doesn’t want to leave her beloved papaya tree, her friends, or the hope that her father will return, but she must go with her family on a journey to a peaceful new home.  But the journey itself is anything but peaceful…

Along with so many other refugees, Hà and her family board a ship that takes them away from the bombs and bullets that plague their home in Saigon.  Food and water are scarce.  Privacy is non-existent.  There are so many people seeking asylum, and no one knows when they can expect to be rescued.  So they cross the sea in hopes that an ally will come along.  And one day, it happens.  An American ship escorts them to Guam where Hà’s family makes plans to go to America.  Eventually, they are sponsored and taken to a place completely foreign to them—Alabama.

Hà is confused by her new home.  She doesn’t understand why the English language has so many confusing rules.  She doesn’t know why her new schoolmates make fun of her.  She doesn’t understand why so many people in the town seem to hate her family on sight.  She doesn’t like the food that is so different from everything she enjoyed in Vietnam.  Hà does know that she is angry, and she longs to find some peace with her new and often frightening circumstances.  With the help of her mother, brothers, and a few neighbors and friends, Hà discovers an inner strength that helps her to adapt to the sudden changes in her life and stand up for herself when others want to push her down.

Inside Out & Back Again is a story of one girl’s journey to a new home and a better understanding of herself, her family, and what it takes to heal from the scars of the past.  This is a wonderful book that I think would be excellent supplemental reading for classes studying the Vietnam War.  A lot of times, this period in history tends to be glossed over, especially when considering the plight of Vietnamese refugees in America.  I’ve taken loads of history classes throughout my education, and I can’t remember a single instance of studying about how the Vietnamese—particularly children—were treated after the war was over.  (I studied this a little on my own when the marching band I worked with did a Miss Saigon show, but that was a bit different.)  This book fills a void in historical fiction, and I look forward to sharing it with the teachers at my school as a possible novel study with our fifth grade students.

This book is an excellent selection for any elementary, middle, or high school libraries.  Children, teens, and adults alike will find this book, a Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award winner, extremely moving, and I hope that it will make them think about their own stories and how they may intertwine with the stories of people the world over.

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