In the midst of all the controversy last fall surrounding the National Book Foundation announcing a wrong nominee for the National Book Award in its YA category, it seemed to me the author who actually won that award got lost in the shuffle. Which is a shame, because Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, also a Newbery Honor recipient, is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more attention.

The story, told in verse, begins on Tet in February 1975 in Vietnam, and is told from the point of view of ten-year-old Ha, whose life is about to change drastically as the war draws to a close. She tells about her boat ride leaving the country with her mother and three brothers, her time at a refugee camp in Guam, and getting sponsored by “the cowboy” and going to live with him in Alabama, where her family is not welcomed. Ha takes readers up to the following Tet, when the little girl who had been turned inside out looks toward the new year with hope.

The synopsis may make this novel sound dire, but it has plenty of humor among the more touching moments. Ha studies English by looking up the sentence, “Jane sees Spot run” in the dictionary. Her results:

Jane: not listed

sees: to eyeball something

Spot: a stain

run: to move really fast

Meaning: __________ eyeballs stain move.

Lai has done a superb job capturing Ha’s voice. Some of you might know my personal story resembles this one in many ways. Ha was about my age in ’75, and her birthday is a day before mine in April, when the war officially ended and we fled Vietnam. I remember wanting to celebrate, but understanding that something was happening and there would be no party.

And I remember feeling this way my first year in school here (like Ha, I was put in the fourth grade):

I say
A B C and so on.

[The teacher] tells the class
to clap.

I frown.

MiSSS SScott
points to numbers
along the wall.

I count to twenty.

The class claps
on its own.

I’m furious,
unable to explain
I already learned
and how to purify
river water.

So this is
what dumb
feels like.

As she struggles with the new language, Ha wishes that “English and life were logical,” and when looking at ketchup and mustard on a hotdog, she sees the red and yellow stripes of the flag of her fallen country. Lai can convey so much with so little. Like Ha and her food rations on the boat, the author chooses her words carefully and makes the most out of each of them.

Nerd verdict: Beautiful and moving Inside Out

Have you ever read a book that made you feel it was written about you?

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  • Reply
    April 11, 2012 at 8:58 am

    I also read one of the books in response to the controversy and feel like I picked the wrong one. This one sounds wonderful. Might have to make another foray into YA.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      I remember people mobilizing to buy the book that was accidentally nominated and then asked to be withdrawn, and the author got a lot of press, which I had no problem with. But when this one won, it felt like an award fell in the woods and there was barely any mention of it.

      • Reply
        April 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm

        Exactly. One reason I’m really glad you did this post. I thought the committee didn’t handle the issue very well and felt sorry for both authors involved. Didn’t even think, at the time, how it might impact the eventual winner.

  • Reply
    April 11, 2012 at 10:09 am

    You are right, based on those few excerpts, this book should have gotten more attention.

    I moved from a very rural area to an actual city when I around 7. The classes I was put in were so far behind me academically speaking that I made my fellow classmates look bad for the first year or so. They were in awe of me and my rudimentary math and english skills and I felt like I was kindergarten. I think they did the clapping thing as well. I laughed out loud reading that section of this post.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      I struggled with English but math was my saving grace because I had no problem understanding numbers!

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    April 11, 2012 at 10:20 am

    This does sound like a good book. I remember a boy coming into my fifth-grade class in mid-year. He came from Panama and spoke perfect English but could barely read at all. Being forced to stand and read aloud was the most excruciating experience for him, and for the class. Yet the teacher made him do it more often than the rest of us, as if humiliation was somehow going to improve his reading skills.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      I was mortified every time the teacher called on me to answer something. Even after I got a rudimentary grasp on the language, I had a hard time pronouncing things. One time, I knew the answer to her question was the Mediterranean Sea, but when the teacher called on me, I was struck mute because I had no idea how to navigate through that many syllables.

  • Reply
    April 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

    This sounds wonderful, PCN. Thanks for making sure we heard about it. I want to pick up a copy of it for myself as well as the nieces and nephews.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks for spreading the word. I hope you and your little ones enjoy it as much as I did.

  • Reply
    April 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I will eyeball this one!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Haha! I see what you did there!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    April 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I was reminded of you as soon as I started reading your review, PCN. It sounds like a beautiful book and the cover art makes me feel that way about it, too. I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      The cover makes this book beautiful, ah, inside and out.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I was able to read this over the weekend and it was wonderful! We talked of it a little over festival weekend and I’m definitely going to email more details when I get a chance (much travel in my schedule lately) but I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it and thank you so much for not letting this book get lost in the kerfuffle of the announcement snafu.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      May 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      I’m so, so happy you read it, Rachel! And that you also enjoyed it. Thanks for taking time to let me know. Hope you have safe travels, and would love to hear more of your thoughts on the book when you have time.

  • Reply
    July 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I absolutely love this book! I read this in four hours and 48 min. and I never put it down. BEST-EST BOOK EVER!!!!!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      July 28, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      Wow! I didn’t time myself but did read it in one day. Thanks for visiting my site!

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