Monday, May 18, 2015

Children's Book Review: Listen, Slowly (Ages 8-12)

Listen, Slowly 
Thanhha Lai

Mia is a California girl through and through. Her Vietnamese heritage isn't quite as important to her as her beach-bound hometown and circle of friends. She loves her family and everything, but to a twelve-year-old on summer vacation, friends and first crushes trump everything. Mia’s parents just don’t understand the misery they are putting her through when they put her on a plane for Vietnam. Her father insists that she is the one best suited to accompany her grandmother to search for her long-lost husband, but she doesn't even know the language!

Mia’s grandmother is a selfless figure who risked everything to leave her home and start a new life for her family. Even though Mia owes everything to her, she can’t help but resent the fact that she has been uprooted for a hopeless quest. As expected, the trip is miserable. The heat is outrageous, Mia didn't pack the right clothing, the mosquitoes are out of control, and she has to use dial up to get on the Internet! Initially, Mia is full of self-pity and complaints. Something changes when she finds herself befriending her cousins and absorbed in the mystery of her missing grandfather. Slowly but surely, Mia becomes a little wiser, kinder, and more mature. It’s a wonderful journey seeing a foreign land through the eyes of an American tween. Mia initially identifies as a uni-cultural American and by the end she is fully engaged with her Vietnamese heritage.

Thanha Lai’s debut novel was Inside Out and Back Again, which was beautifully written in verse. This is her first novel in prose and it does not disappoint. The writing evokes sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings that make Mia’s visit feel like tangible experience for the reader. I was fully wrapped up in the world just a few pages in. Mia’s voice and personality is just as vivid as the scenery. The nagging self-pity and misery brought up memories of my own feelings at that age. Sure, it was a little irritating, but I could totally identify with her. Mia slowly undergoes a transformation that is sincere and believable. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say the book left me with a deep satisfaction. I felt like I had been through everything myself. I think children fourth grade and up will get a lot out of this title. Mia does indulge in thoughts about boys and body image, but it is all appropriately handled in a way that a preteen can identify with. I can see this title being a perfect summer read for tween girls. (And grown-ups like me.)

Mollie McFarland
Springville Road Regional Branch Library

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