March 2011

Finding a home in America

By Thanhha Lai
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Inside Out and Back Again, an autobiographical novel written in verse, captures one year in the life of 10-year-old Kim Hà. Her unforgettable story begins and ends with Tét, the first day of the Vietnamese lunar calendar. It’s February 1975 and Saigon is about to fall.

Hà flees Vietnam with her mother and two brothers, boarding a ship in a nearby port. One poignant poem lists some of what they must leave behind: “Ten gold-rimmed glasses . . . Brother Quant’s report cards . . . Vines of jasmine.” After weeks at sea and a stay in a refugee camp on Guam, Hà’s family ends up in Alabama, where a sponsor is found.

Holding tight to the 10-year-old point of view, first-time author Thanhha Lai draws on memories of her own childhood, when her family fled Vietnam after the war and moved to Alabama. The reader will smell the incense, long for the taste of fresh papaya and feel the rocking of the ship. The difficulty of learning English, coupled with Hà’s desire for perfection, makes assimilation nearly impossible, especially when some of the kids in her class cruelly tease her about her hair, her accent and the flatness of her face. She grows up, tries to learn the art of making do from her mother, and leans on her brothers and her tutor, Mrs. Washington. And she learns to fly-kick like Bruce Lee.

Lai’s spare poetry, full of emotion and infused with humor, is accessible to young children and adults alike. This moving and beautifully told story is a must-read for anyone who works with children new to the country. 

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