Friday, July 26, 2013

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Image from
HarperCollins, 2011

It’s 1975 and 10 year old Ha lives in Saigon with her mother and three older brothers. There’s not much money or food because of the war, but Ha likes the routine of her life and she enjoys the little things, like the papayas she is growing in her backyard. But then the war escalates. School closes a month early. Food becomes scarce. So when a family friend provides a way for the family to flee South Vietnam Ha’s mother knows she must take this opportunity. Taking just one small bag each, the family squeezes onto a crowded ship bound for America. Sponsored by a family in Alabama, Ha’s family works hard to hold onto their culture and customs, while also fitting into their new life in the all-White town. In a year of incredible upheaval, Ha learns about life as she laughs, loves, grieves, struggles, and ultimately triumphs.

In this verse novel, Lai uses non-rhyming, free verse to give the reader a series of chronological snapshots of young Ha’s life.  Much of the first person text deals with Ha’s internal struggles, making this book more than just historical facts. Lai writes in the author’s note that this story is based on events from her own childhood when she fled from Vietnam to Alabama with her family. The emotional arc of the plot keeps the reader engaged and provides a window into the mind of a child trying to adapt to unavoidable changes in cultures, customs, and language. Ha’s comments on cultural differences and similarities are seamlessly woven into the text, sometimes in a humorous way and other times in a touching or even heartbreaking manner. Ha’s struggle to deal with the many changes in her life is what makes her such a realistic and compelling protagonist. Intelligent and well-read, she finds learning English difficult and is frustrated to feel and appear so dumb because she cannot express herself. This verse novel is a great recommendation for a quick historical fiction read.

Read a few pages of this verse novel or listen to a clip of the audiobook read by Doan Ly.

*Encourage kids to rewrite a familiar story in verse or create their own original works based on their own experiences.

*Read some other verse novels and compare/contrast the voices of several authors. Try one or more of these:
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Age 9+ / Grade 4+



  1. I love that you're reviewing a lot of cultural books. Being able to see the world through another perspective is a great tool to teach.

    1. I actually picked this one up because I forgot my book and needed something to read at lunch! But I'm so glad that I did. And you're right, I think the more perspectives we can view the more compassionate and empathetic we are.

  2. The cover would certainly make me stop and pick it up. It is practically glowing. Beautiful work by the artist/design team. This one sounds very, very good.

    Marlene Detierro (SEO Austin)

    1. I hope you do pick it up! It's a beautiful read.