Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Yesterday I promised you I was beginning a timely series, and this is it.  With the announcement of the 2012 Newbery Award for the outstanding achievement in children's literature over the past year coming on January 23, there are only a few more weeks to read and assess the best middle school books from 2011--at least if you want to make your own selections beforehand, as my son's Mock Newbery book club does.

My son and I have both been spending the extra leisure time we've had over the holidays consuming as many of the favored books as possible (seeing as our reading dropped off dramatically during our month of writing for NaNoWriMo).  So over the next few weeks, I will try to add book reviews for as many of the eligible books as I can.

Our first review in the series is an entry that is high on the Newbery prediction list:

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This book is a lovely description of an ugly time. It tells the story of Ha, a young Vietnamese girl who must flee her country with her mother and three brothers as the American forces pull out and the Northern Vietnamese overrun her homeland. Ha and her family are relocated to Alabama, where, as you might imagine, they have a hard time fitting in.

One of the things that makes this book really special, I think is the fact that the story is told as a series of dated verse poems. This means that the text is very sparse, with each word carrying a lot of impact. I believe this works really well in this book for several reasons. First, it is a device that moves the plot along in a specific time, which is important when you are dealing with a real historical timeline. But it also makes it seem like a diary, which makes it intimate, even when dealing with a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Second, it conveys the difficulty in trying to communicate in an unfamiliar language. It helps young readers understand unconsciously how hard it is to try to get your point across in a new language by using incorrect English--but in a way that is still comprehensible and poetic. Third, I, at least, thought it added a nice Asian sensibility to things. The verse makes it exotic, compared to traditional books, and also has that simple, stripped down essence that I associate with Asian culture. Finally, I think this really works for the audience for which it is written, which I would say is the Newbery Award age range of nine-fourteen. This bare-bones description of a difficult time is not overwhelming for the younger end of the age range, but is still complex and interesting enough for fourteen year olds and much older--such as me, who is several decades older.

This book won the 2011 Young People’s Literature National Book Award, which is quite a commendation. And in some ways, it reminds me of Mockingbird, which won the same award last year (see my complete book review here).

Because I think both of these books take you inside the head of someone living in a typical American community, but who have totally untypical American lives. I think that is a wonderful type of book to have for our children. It’s a period where fantasy is really popular, and that’s OK; my son definitely enjoys that, and I see the value in it. But I think books like this serve a different purpose. They can help our children develop empathy for others who are different by understanding where they have come from, and in many cases, how hard the journey has been. Fantasy helps us develop our “what if?” thinking, but these kinds of books help us deal with the reality of the differentiations in our lives, yet showing what we have in common (like commitment to family) that makes us similar despite our outward differences.

So I definitely recommend this book. We are doing 20th century history this year, including the Vietnam War, so it fits in with that. And I do think it is a great introduction for kids to think about that war from the perspective of the American-oriented Vietnamese. But Ha’s story about being uprooted and having to deal with an alien culture while trying to deal with the trials that come with families is a tale that transcends that particular era and situation.

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