Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Children's Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again (Ages 8 and Up)

Inside Out & Back Again
Thanhha Lai

This is a beautifully written middle grade novel about a ten year old girl whose family is forced to immigrate to Alabama from Saigon during the Vietnam War. The reader follows HÀ from her vibrant, but war-torn streets of Saigon to the rolling hills and fields of the Deep South. I was struck at the intensity of loneliness and frustration that I felt with HÀ. She is a bright and perceptive kid, but her control of the English language is basically nil when she begins school in America. Kids and teachers assume she’s dim and strange, which is a contrast that disturbs her; she was an excellent student in her country. Her social faux pas were simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking as she wears a flannel nightgown to school and struggles with myriad grammar rules, “whoever invented English, should be bitten by a snake.” Some passages actually made me laugh out loud.

She’s mocked and belittled just when she needs to be encouraged and accepted. Despite the fear and violence of her native land, she longs for her home as she finds Alabama to be intolerably foreign. It was a unique experience to look at my home state from the perspective of a frightened immigrant girl. All of the customs, people, food, and landscape that I take for granted are shown in a whole new light through her eyes.

This book cuts right to the heart of a child’s immigration experience with precision and grace. Rather than prose, it is written in a stark and accessible free verse, which readily evokes connection and understanding. The author, Lai Thanhha, is writing from her own childhood experience and it shows. I would highly recommend this book for middle grade readers as well as adults. At no point does the novel read like a watered-down, saccharine children’s novel. While it is never harsh or violent, it pulls no punches. Readers are taken on a deeply poignant journey through fear, tragedy, and acceptance. Everyone who reads this is certain to gain a greater understanding of the immigration experience.

Submitted by Mollie Harrison
Springville Road Library

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