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):
A B C and so on.
[The teacher] tells the class
points to numbers
along the wall.
I count to twenty.
The class claps
on its own.
unable to explain
I already learned
and how to purify
So this is
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?