Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

inside out and back again

Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai
Harper, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-196278-3
FORMAT: Poetry, Juvenile Fiction
AGES: Elementary School, Middle School
4 Stars

We first meet Ha when she is trying to adjust to a changing life in South Vietnam after all the American soldiers left. Her father is missing, prices for food are getting higher, and Ha is sometimes frustrated and doesn’t want to be “good”. The only trouble is that life doesn’t get any easier when her family begins their journey to escape before the Northern Vietnam flag flies over their city. Ha doesn’t enjoy her journey to the United States. And once in the state of Alabama, she is disillusioned with how life is so different from what she is used to.

Ha’s story is beautiful and heartfelt. The poetry is amazing. And I enjoyed seeing the world through her eyes and well-chosen words. Since it is a book of poetry, I think that many readers who are daunted by long chapter books will be happy with all the white space on the page. However, they will still need to pay close attention to each poem in order to understand the source of Ha’s frustrations and what she and her family do about them. For example, when Ha and her family are in the United States, she sounds out words that are around her. When reading words like “Ha Le Lu Da” need to be translated to “hallelujah”.

I liked how this story was told from Ha’s point of view. She wasn’t afraid to “write” in her poetry the confusion and anger that come from being one of the smartest girls in a school class to feeling dumb because she can’t understand the new language or the culture around her. I think many young readers will relate to “how [Ha] shoulder[s] the world!”

Book Discussion Questions:
Why was the family torn about whether to stay in Vietnam or to leave? What were the pros and cons of each decision?When Ha told her mother about how hard school was in Alabama, she mentioned that she used to always hurt her schoolmate in Vietnam. Why are school children often so cruel to each other (no matter what culture)?
Ha’s family could only choose one extra thing to take with them from Vietnam. What would you take if you had to leave with only one “extra”?
“MiSSSisss WaSShington” says, “The more mistakes you make, the more you’ll learn not to.” What type of mistakes are you afraid of making?

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