An inspirational story of immigration from Vietnam to Alabama after the Fall of Saigon, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is written entirely in verse. Although aimed at middle graders, this moving book will enrich your life.
The poetry, vivid portrayal of Vietnam, intense immigrant experience, sympathetic portrayal of Buddhist faith and a middle grade lens—this book falls a little outside many readers’ comfort zones.
But the deviation from your regular rotation will be worth the effort. Lai’s free verse poetry is rich, complex, full of beautiful imagery, and yet very accessible. The poetry lends itself surprisingly well to reading out loud if you have a 10 – 14 year old girl that you want to share this story with. Girls will relate to Ha, who remembers fondly the thrills, comforts and joys of her old home in Saigon, and struggles with the adjustment to American life—as well as her own realistically complex feelings of guilt, selfishness, love and hate. Ha copes with a new situation and learns to find her way with grace and humor—something that all girls will understand.
Older readers will be encouraged to reflect on their own tween and teen years and compare how they dealt with those universal struggles for identity, belonging and coping with bullies. It’s interesting to note that Ha and her Vietnamese family are Buddhist, but claim to be Christians for immigration purposes. They are baptized to fit into the local community and Ha is taunted about “boo-da” to which she calls back “gee-sus”—a clear example of the lack of understanding between faiths.
Although it’s sad that her family claims Christianity for expediency, it is understandable under the circumstances. Ha’s family’s story shows the failings of the evangelism that allows the church to baptize this family as a show for the community, but falls short in showing love—a love that would point them to the saving grace of God. It’s an important eye-opener for understanding the immigrant experience and those who are raised in the Buddhist faith.
Inside Out and Back Again is a New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor Book and a winner of the National Book Award. But that’s not why you should read it. It’s also a beautiful poetry collection that tells the story of war, loss and immigration in a way that will move your heart and stir your mind.
Tessa lives the country life in Ontario with her husband and four kids (and a bunch of chickens).