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Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, 262 pp, RL 4

Thanhha Lai's semi-autobiographical verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again won the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor in 2011. I feel like I say this at the start of every verse novel that I review (which, admittedly, is few) but I continually find myself in awe of the author's ability to convey emotionally charged life experiences using a mere a handful of words. This economy of language is perfectly suited to Lai's story of Hà, a native of Saigon who flees with her older brothers and mother as the city falls. After weeks on a crowded boat then more weeks in a crowded tent city on Guam, they finally find a home in Alabama. Lai's concise poems and deliberate word choice are the ideal medium for conveying the powerful experiences of leaving the only home you have known and making in a new home in a country where at best your experience is completely alien, at worst, you are the face of the enemy of a nation. And, I can't imagine a more perfect way to convey the struggle to learn a new language, especially one as bafflingly illogical as English. But, Lai's story is more than a first person account of a refugee of war. Ten-year-old narrator Hà is a complex character, willful, spoiled and sometimes mean before leaving her home and determined, frightened and frustrated once she is in America, waiting for the day when she will feel smart again.

Lai begins Inside Out & Back Again on Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, in 1975 and ends her novel on Tết, January 31st, 1976. Hà begins the year by setting her foot on the floor first, ahead of her brother who has been chosen for this ritual because "only male feet can bring luck." When the "I Ching Teller of Fate" predicts a year that will turn her family's lives inside out, Hà carries the secret of her unlucky girl foot being the first to touch the floor with her as the events of the year unfold, unburdening herself of this secret just before the next Tết arrives. Almost as impossible to bear for Hà is knowing that, in Saigon she was the smartest in her class. In Vietnam, Hà was already reading Truyện Kiều, The Tale of Kieu, the story of a girl who sacrifices herself for her family, thought of as the most significant piece of Vietnamese literature written. In an interview, Lai said that she began reading Nguyễn Du's masterwork at the same age as Hà. At the age of twenty, she read a couplet in the poem that made her think, "how wonderful my life would be if I could spend hours conveying the world in as few words as possible. While writing Inside Out & Back Again I got a taste of that life, and let me tell you, it was wonderful." Lai's joy and mastery of this form of expression are both ever present as you read Inside Out & Back Again, but also elegantly subtle. Images and feelings will return to you long after you have finished.

While Hà's experience trying to teach herself to read with a Dick and Jane book and an English dictionary is quite an insight:

I look up 

Jane : not listed

sees : to eyeball something
Spot : a stain

run : to move really fast

Meaning :  ______ eyeballs stain move.

And her experience in a lunchroom divided by color is equally eyeopening:

On one side
Of the bright, noisy room,
light skin. 
Other side, 
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred 
to them
someone medium
would show up.

I experienced my first glimmer of illumination and understanding at the end of the novel in the poem 1976 : The Year of the Dragon.

This Tết 
there's no I Ching Teller of Fate,
So Mother predicts our year.

Our lives 
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and the new
until it doesn't matter which is which.

Simple words and simple imagery, but somehow, it was in this moment at the end of the novel that I felt like I almost understood what it might feel like to leave your home, your way of life, the country where your father went missing nine years earlier, the place where you grew a papaya tree from a seed, your favorite fruit in the whole world and move to a new place where you can't even buy a fresh papaya and children pull the dark hairs on your arms and you mistake a flannel nightgown for a dress and wear it to school. Over time, your old life and new life blend together. Time softens the sharp edges of memories. But to have lived through this threshold year with Hà in Inside Out & Back Again, to go from sneaking money to buy toasted coconut, sugary fried dough and crunchy mung bean cookies at the market that you eat in delicious secrecy to "a white meat sandwich, an apple, crunchy things sprinkled with salt and a cookie dotted with chocolate raindrops" that you eat in the classroom alone so the children cannot pick on you is a potent experience, even in, or especially in, the form of a free verse poem.

Source: Purchased


T. said…
This was a kindle kids deal of the day a couple of months ago. I am so glad Amazon introduced me to this! Bought for my daughter but devoured myself. In fact, my daughter will have to be a little bit older to understand the heft of emotion that this swift gem imparts. I never knew how effective (and efficient) a verse-novel could be!
Jeremy said…
This book blew my mind, and I cried like a baby more than once.
Tanya said…
T: You have perfectly and succinctly described the beauty of this genre! And,as a working parent, I really love a book I can read in a sitting or two. Agreed, though - this is the kind of book you want to make sure your child reads at the right time, or reads a second time. So many subtleties. If you can, read KARMA by Otslere. It's for teens but another example of a stunning verse novel.
Tanya said…
Jeremy - Agreed! Check out Karen Hesse's ALEUTIAN SPARROW. I reviewed it a couple of years ago. An aspect of US history I never knew about. It's interesting to me how (painful, difficult) historical events seems to lend themselves to the verse novel format.
Jess said…
I snuck this book into our library haul last week, and just waited until my daughter discovered it in the pile. She devoured it in one sitting, and looked up amazed, and said, "Mom, that book was REALLY good." Now I have to read it, because it looks incredible, and so that I can get a gauge on how much she got out of it. Thank you so much for pointing me to this book!
Tanya said…
Be sure to sneak Lai's new book, LISTEN, SLOWLY, into your next pile! It's not written in verse, but it takes place in Vietnam, this time in the present and really amazing. Also, be sure to check out Jacqueline Woodson's newest, multiple award winner, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, which is also written in verse. I just finished writing my review - it's phenomenal.

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