Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
YA author Thanhha Lai recounts her experiences as a child-growing-into-adolescence while the Vietnam War grinds to a halt and the Americans pull out of South Vietnam. The autobiographical Inside Out & Back Again is written in narrative poetry which is sectioned into four parts: Saigon, At Sea, Alabama, and From Now On.
I just had a conference in my class with a student who wanted to make her story sound / read more innocently. Writing from the perspective of a child, she wanted to write how a child sees, what it sees, how it names things. It is more than just changing some words, the writer has to try to recount what is indeed important to a child...a child's priorities are unique and should be treated as such. This is a part of what makes Inside Out & Back Again successful.
Lai's brings our narrator Hå to life with the sensibility of both an artist and also someone who is completely saturated with the experience:
I can't make my brothers
go live elsewhere
but I can
hide their sandals
There is a hint in the book that even at a young age Lai's alter ego understood that she was an artist and on the path towards being someone beautiful:
Mother has always wanted
an engineer, a real doctor, a poet,
and a lawyer.
She turns to me.
You love to argue, right?
No I don't.
I vow to become much more agreeable.
There are many perspectives to consider in a YA novel like this: history, culture, growing up, family, siblings, bullying, racism, war, politics, and even to a much more complex degree love and loss, comfort, acceptance, and inner strength or pride. The mother is a mighty character...her presence is felt within each poem. I could feel her eyes on Hå as I read, even if she wasn't included in on that particular poem.
wanting the gentle strokes
to continue forever.
wanting Mother's calmness
to sink into me.
The book lists itself as appropriate for ages 8-12, but quite honestly I enjoyed it as much as any book written for my age range--and I don't mean as a curiosity. This is a book which brings a slice of history alive (which I love in YA literature) but the history is a backdrop. History is what happens around human beings. Lai has captured the human experience and presented it as a thoroughly enriching experience for the YA audience.
Highly recommended for your middle school bookshelf.
View all my reviews