Thanhha Lai
Harper Collins
February 2011

SUMMARY (courtesy of Harper Collins)
Inside Out and Back Again is a New York Timesbestseller, a Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award! Inspired by the author's childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child's-eye view of family and immigration.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing received four starred reviews, including one from Kirkus which proclaimed it "enlightening, poignant, and unexpectedly funny." An author's note explains how and why Thanhha Lai translated her personal experiences into Hà's story.

Life as a Vietnamese refugee may seem like a difficult topic for a children's book, but like Lois Lowry's child-portioned view of the Holocaust in Number the Stars, Inside Out & Back Again delivers just enough of a taste of that tragedy to teach compassion and understanding without overwhelming anyone. Better than that, though, this novel-in-verse helps readers to feel more grateful and sensitive.

Ha is a ten-year-old girl, the youngest child and only daughter of a mother struggling to keep her family afloat while her husband is missing in action. When a chance to leave Saigon appears before them, the family takes it, leaving nearly all of their possessions behind. The journey to America is very difficult, especially before the United States navy finds their ship and replenishes their stock of food.

Once in the United States, the family finds a home in Alabama. In Vietnam, Ha was smart, but in Alabama, she feels stupid because she can't express her thoughts or understand what other people are talking about. She gets teased, and she suffers the indignities of not understanding the culture around her. For example, she wears a flannel nightgown to school one day, thinking it's just a soft, pretty dress.

With the help of a few understanding children and adults, Ha begins to feel like herself again. There are some things she will always miss--like fresh papaya--but she finds that she can feel whole and loved once more.

One of the remarkable things about this book is that it helps readers to see their own world in a new light. When an "outsider" describes your life, you can step back and see it with new eyes, and this is truly a gift. Thanhha Lai can offer this gift because she herself turned inside out and back again.


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