Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Written by Thanhha Lai
Middle Readers, Ages 8 and up
(Published in 2011 by Harper Collins)

In 1975, ten-year-old Ha and her mother and brothers flee Saigon, before the Communists take over. After a grueling sea voyage on an overcrowded ship, and time spent in refugee camps, they end up in Alabama through the sponsorship of a "cowboy." There they must learn to navigate life in this new world, and Ha despairs of ever fitting in and not feeling stupid. Told through Ha's eyes, this story chronicles her life before leaving Saigon, and after coming to Alabama.

I love, love, LOVE this book! Written in free verse form, Lai's turn of phrase is so lyrical, beautiful, and evocative. For example, when they're embarking on the refugee boat:

"We climb on
and claim a space
of two straw mats
under the deck,
enough for us five
to lie side by side.

By sunset our space
is one straw mat,
enough for us five
to huddle together.

Bodies cram
every centimeter
below deck,
then every centimeter
on deck.

Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.

But no one
is heartless enough
to say
because what if
they had been
before their turn?"

And then later, when Ha is trying to learn English:
"Brother Quang says
add an s to nouns
to mean more than one
even if there's
already an s
sitting there.


All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth.

Whoever invented
must have loved
Isn't that gorgeous imagery? I couldn't stop reading this book. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen to Ha and her family, and I ached for them as they tried to find a place in the new world they fled to.
Thank you for writing such a marvelous book, Ms. Lai.


  1. Well! How could I NOT want to read this one--refugees who come to AL, of all places! Thanks for the review!!

  2. Positively required reading, Amy! You can't let your state down! ;)