Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

July 2, 2012 in Novels in Verse, PoC / multicultural



I found the biggest cover image I could find for this book because this cover is absolutely, astoundingly gorgeous. By far one of my all-time favorite book covers. It’s got a hint of James and the Giant Peach (the movie), a dash of whimsy, and an exotic magicalness that fits this story so beautifully. So, go ahead. Stare at it for a while. I’ll wait.

Don’t worry. If you aren’t done staring, you can always come back to it. Or go buy yourself a copy so you can hold it in your hands and stare. Nothing is better than art you can hold!

Okay. Now for my review. :)

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

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, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.


This is one of those happy accidents that I stumbled on after reading…actually, I don’t even remember what I was reading. It could have been a trade magazine at work, like PW  or Library Journal, or it could have been one of the many blogs I peruse on a weekly basis. Or it could have just been the library card catalog…which I also peruse on a weekly basis.

No matter how I found it, though, I am so glad I did.

This is a lovely, sweet story, told in verse (oh, how I love novels in verse!), by 10-year-old Hà. The story starts out with a fairly happy tone, despite the sorrow Hà sees in her Mother’s eyes as the whole family misses Father. Though Hà misses her father, too, she has never really known him (he disappeared when she was one), and she is content to watch her papaya tree grow its sweet fruit. Life is simple, sweet, and familiar.

Everything changes when Hà and her family choose to flee the war-torn Vietnam for America. Hà’s narration becomes a little darker as she suffers weeks aboard an overcrowded ship. She misses the simple things, like her papaya, and hints of fear and anxiety creep into her observations of the world that is so quickly changing around her. How will Father know where to find them? What will their new home be like?

The family finally settles in Alabama, and Hà meets her first cowboy (who is, sadly, without a horse), and must learn a language that makes no sense (“Whoever invented English,” she says, “should be bitten by a snake.”) She must also endure school, where mean kids mock her and pull her arm hair, and live in a neighborhood where folks slam their doors in her family’s face.

Hà’s spirit is not easily crushed, despite her self-proclaimed pouty-ness and stubborn anger at all she endures. Though she hates being laughed at and made to feel stupid, she learns to defend herself, and even makes a few friends. Hà has a curious spirit, which allows her to soak up the world around her with a lilting and bemused tone. Her story is at once charming and heartbreaking, unique yet universal.

As I’ve mentioned, I love novels in verse, which was, aside from the cover, one of the main things that drew me to this book. The verse is elegant in its simplicity. Short lines, easy rhythm, and lovely imagery keep you hungry for more. I read this book in a matter of hours, flying through the poems, and then stopping to reread them so I would not miss their beauty. I can’t help but think that Hà’s story would be a great one for a child learning to read–or even one learning to speak English–to read aloud with a parent. (Keeping in mind, of course, that this book is written for children Hà’s age, or so.) The verse has a lyrical quality that allows it to flow smoothly while conveying a moving story about compassion, culture and family.

Equally charming is the Author’s Note at the end. (If you aren’t in the habit of reading Author’s Notes, you should reform your ways! There are often so many wonderful insights into both author and story in these notes.) Thanhha Lai confesses that much of Hà’s story is inspired by her own experience of moving to Alabama from Vietnam as a child. Even down to the arm-hair-pulling, Lai weaves Hà’s memories with her own, creating a rich, and multidimensional experience for reader and characters alike. She also challenges readers to “sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story.”

This charming tale is an easy 5 yak smacks.

Now…you have my permission to resume staring at that glorious cover.