A Review of Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

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Inside Out and Back Again is a New York Times bestseller, 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.

– – – – –

4.5 Stars
Quick Reasons: it’s written in verse!; unique, heart-wrenching, often humorous perspective; Hà’s voice is clear and engaging; the images strike a fine balance between whimsical and the five senses; each poem acts as a seam, both standing alone yet tying in with the rest; this is a great glimpse into the past and into a different culture

Apparently this year of reading is going to be all about skipping across genres—in the last week alone I’ve gone from steampunk to modern-day retelling to comics…and now, historical fiction! This isn’t your average historical prose, though—this is written entirely in verse! It’s been too long since I read a novel written strictly in poems; I’m so happy I got to fix that! (Though to be honest, I didn’t know going in to expect that! Surprising? Definitely. Disappointing? Heck no!)

How peaceful he looks,
smiling,
peacock tails
at the corners
of his eyes.

So, first off: the language used throughout is absolutely gorgeous. There are so many turns of phrase and unique ideosyncracies that brought a ton of fun and whimsy to the read. On top of this, the smooth and lilting rhythm had me wondering if perhaps this is meant to take on a sort of “oral narrative” feel—this book SCREAMS to be read aloud, to get the nuances and pauses synchronized perfectly with the story.

As the narrator (and “writer” of the poems), Hà’s voice is clear and unwavering. She sheds details about her life and surroundings like skin across every piece—even those focusing on other people say something about her personality, her struggles, her growth. There are some utterly profound, complex, and emotionally moving snippets littered throughout—all told with the same innocent, confused, and (at times) heartbreaking perspective. This collection of poems does what all good poetry should: it moves, it haunts, and it leaves you thinking.

Mother says

if the price of eggs
were not the price of rice,
and the price of rice
were not the price of gasoline,
and the price of gasoline
were not the price of gold,
then of course
Brother Khoi
could continue hatching eggs.

She’s sorry.

At its heart is the story of a girl’s flight from war into a new and unknown world—and the challenges faced in accepting change. But trust me, there is so much more going on. As individual poems, the pieces focus on the day to day: small snippets from a collage of remembrances. As a whole, this book tackles farther-reaching ideas, including: how do you say goodbye to someone you’re not sure is really gone?; how much change can you handle before you lose a piece of who you really are?; why do so many look down on or make fun of those who are different?

All of those ideas, plus many more besides, come together in a lyrical, relevant way. Readers will find themselves laughing, cheering, hurting and raging about the things described. Each scene is expertly crafted to play on not just the heart strings, but also the five senses. The imagination is brought to roaring, colorful life with a blend of whimsy, the abstract, and the tangible. This book is a journey—not just for the characters, but for readers as well.

Mother clicks her tongue:

Tears of an ugly fish.

I know that to mean
fake tears of a crocodile.

I had a ton of fun “seeing” the world through Hà’s eyes—and learning, in the process, a bit about Thanhha Lai’s childhood. This is an all-around beautiful read, with descriptions that leap off the page begging readers to pay attention. I definitely recommend to lovers of historical fiction, poetry, and coming-of-age stories. Also, the cover is gorgeous, so there’s that too!  The book may be quick, but it packs a hefty wallop—you should give it a shot!

2 thoughts on “A Review of Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

  1. Pingback: Sunday Post (#2) | betwixt-the-pages

  2. Pingback: January Wrap-Up – betwixt-the-pages

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