March 17, 2011

Book Talk: Inside Out and Back Again

I have been on a roll this week!  I have been lucky enough to pick up 3 gems at the Iowa City Public Library.  As it turns out, all 3 books are related to war and how innocent people are affected by the decisions that other people make.  The powerful messages and characters in these books make them wonderful prospects for the 2012 Newbery Medal... now, remember you read it here first!  The third book I read this week was Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  This is a historical fiction novel written in verse (it looks like a poem but it doesn't rhyme, and it reads like a regular book.  You just have to get use to the short lines and breaks.)  
You will have to endure a short history lesson before you get to the book talk- if you don't need it, scroll down! : )

Do you know very much about The Vietnam War?  Did you know that as the Vietnam War ended tat over 150,000 people fled the country looking for a safe place to live?  Why would people want to leave Vietnam?  Here is the simple answer:
Before World War II, Vietnam belonged to France.  A man named Ho Chi Minh didn't the fact that Vietnam belonged to France and wanted Vietnam's independence.  During World War II, The Japanese came into Vietnam and took over after Germany defeated the French.  When this happened, Ho Chi Minh declared that Vietnam was free- but when The British and Chinese came to Vietnam to rescue the Japanese soldiers, fighting broke out.  France took over the southern part of Vietnam and fought against Ho Chi Minh in the North. 
Eventually, the United States got involved and supported the South (They wanted to stop Communism).  The war lasted a very long time and many people were killed- including innocent civilians.  
The war ended when Ho Chi Minh took over Saigon, the capitol city in South Vietnam.  When this happened, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled the country.  Many of them went to a base in Guam where they were then assigned to a country.  Vietnamese people who came to The US were assigned to cities throughout the country- the US government wanted to spread our new immigrants out so they could be more like Americans, instead of putting them all together by themselves.  (Looking back, people now realize it would have helped them more to let them stick together instead of separating from their countrymen).  For a family to be assigned a city, they had to have an American family sponsor them. 
Vietnamese Refugees on a ship headed to Guam

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai tells the story of Hà, a ten year old girl living in South Vietnam as Saigon falls.  Her father is a soldier who has been missing for 9 years. Because her father was a soldier, her family is given a spot on a Vietnamese Navy ship as it flees the country.  With a small bag full of extra clothes, little food and a mouse bitten doll, Hà escapes with her family.  As the ship sails down river, they hear the sounds of bombs as Saigon is attacked.  The living conditions on the ship are dire, very little food, not much clean water, cramped spaces and tense nerves.  When one of the ship's engines dies, the circumstances go from bad to worse.  After 2 weeks at sea, the ship is spotted by The United States Navy and towed to Guam (a territory of the US in The Pacific Ocean). 
Hà's family consists of her 3 older brothers and incredibly strong and resilient mother.  Her oldest brother is able to speak English, so once in Guam he begins translating for people.  The family lives in a tent together until the mother is asked where she would like to relocate her family.  She could choose Paris, where relatives were known to live, or she could go to Canada with her brother-in-law who accompanied them on the trip.  As she is waiting to make a choice, a man behind her tells her to go to America where the boys are sure to get jobs and the US Government will pay for her children to go to college.  She chooses America.  
The family is flown to Alabama where they live in more tents.  The US Government has decided that all refugees must stay in the camp until they are sponsored by an American family.  Hà and her family are not chosen- there are 5 of them and that is a lot of mouths to feed.  Hà's mother learns that changing her religious belief to Christianity will speed up the process, so she does and is sponsored soon after.  An American cowboy takes them to his house with the promise that Hà's oldest brother will work for him as an auto mechanic.  The family arrives at the Cowboy's house (Hà thinks he is a cowboy because he wears a cowboy hat and she is certain he has a horse somewhere!).  When they arrive, the cowboy's wife is not happy and they are told to "stay out of the neighbor's eyes" and they are forced to stay in the basement.  
Weeks later, Cowboy moves the family into a small house and enrolls Hà in school.  Now- imagine how you would feel if everything you know has been shaken up- you have left your country, you don't speak English and you look different than everyone else.  How would you feel?  Hà is scared- Pink Face is a bully who torments her daily.  She is insecure- in Vietnam, she was very, very smart- but in Alabama, she is stupid... the class clapped for her when she said her ABCs.  The food is different, the people are different and the customs are different- Hà doesn't know where she fits in. She finds that learning English is very difficult and almost gives up until a friendly neighbor, Miss Washington, offers to tutor her.  Miss Washington teaches her more than English- she teaches her kindness and acceptance.  She stands up for Hà when she can't stand up for herself and she helps her find her voice.  
This is a beautiful story of how 1 family overcomes all odds that are stacked against them and start a new life in a foreign country.  The book does a remarkable job of capturing exactly how that little 10 year old girl felt.  I found myself feeling anxious as she was chased home by the bully. I was saddened when her family mourns the loss of her father.  I was overjoyed when she and her brothers find a place where they belong.  The story is full of wonderful imagery that allows the reader to experience the smells, tastes and sites of Vietnam, and then Alabama.  It would be a great novel to use when teaching visualization!  
When kids pick up a book about people fleeing a war torn country and landing in The United States- they usually think of "happily ever after"... that the family arrives and gets a job and a house and builds a new life.  This book tells it like it is.  Although Hà and her family are so grateful for everything they receive, they don't like pity and they don't like charity.  They work hard for what they have.  Because of the Vietnam War, immigrants are discriminated against- many Americans blamed these innocent people for the death sons in the war.  The sad truth is that people like Hà and her family were victims too.  They didn't want to give up their lives and move to Alabama.  They didn't want to start the war.  They didn't want American soldiers to die.  All of those things were decided for them by some man years ago.  The book ends with the hope of a bright future for Hà and her family.  
I loved this book and would recommend it for any child in grades 4-8.  I didn't know the book was written in verse until I got it home from the library.  (I don't peek at books- it ruins it for me.  I like to be surprised... it is just like opening a present!)  I must admit that this is the first free verse novel I have ever read- and it won't be my last.  I hope that kids aren't thrown off by the way the type looks on the page.  It looks like a poem, but it reads like a book.  Kids without knowledge of The Vietnam War will enjoy this book as well as those that know a lot.  This would be a great fit in any unit on family, war/peace or bullying/character education and equality.  I wouldn't hesitate to use it as a read aloud for a mixed 3-4 classroom.

The author of this book, Thanhha Lai is a poet and professor who lived the story of Hà.  Her family of 10 escaped Vietnam in 1975 and lived in Alabama.  This is her first book for children, and it could be her first Newbery Winner too.  Good luck, Ms. Lai!  I'm rooting for you just like I did for Hà!


  1. Loved learning about this title! Thanks for the review.

  2. Fascinating review! I particularly liked this quote: "When kids pick up a book about people fleeing a war torn country and landing in The United States- they usually think of "happily ever after"... that the family arrives and gets a job ans a house and builds a new life. This book tells it like it is. "

    I am going to get this book to read with my family. My eldest daughter was 11 when we immigrated to America (10 years ago) so I hope it will resonate for her and help her little siblings understand her experience.