This fictionalized account of a young girl’s journey from Vietnam to the U.S. carries the musical quality of the Vietnamese language in its poetic form.
The main character, ten-year-old Há, leaves her friends, her home with its papaya tree, and her position in a school that considers her smart, for an uncertain and sometimes dangerous journey.
Author Thanhha (pronounced TANG-Ha) Lai based this novel on her own experiences with loss and adjustment as she and her large family made their way to the U.S. in the 1970s. Her experience in school, where children made fun of her Asian features and habits, resonates with anyone who ever felt different in a new situation, especially immigrants.
Humor plays a major part in her adjustment to America, as when Há unknowingly wears a flannel nightgown to school because it is the newest thing she has and she loves it. Or, when she struggles to learn English:
the spelling changes
when adding an s…
Whoever invented English
should have learned
to spell. (page 177)
A retired teacher helps Há learn new words, although she wishes “English could be learned without so many rules.” This woman rewards Há with fruit covered in marshmallow fluff, an intriguing learning technique! This teacher and her mother show Há the strength she must have in facing any difficulty and how laughter helps alleviate the pain.
In 2011, Ms. Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newbery Honor award.
Link to Harper Collins web site about Thanhha Lai
Publishers Weekly interview with Thanhha Lai