The Children's Book Compass

A Novel About the Immigrant Experience

Posted on: December 29, 2011

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  262 pages.  Harper.  Ages 9-14.  Historical Fiction.

In the 1980’s I taught an exceptional class of sixth graders who were mostly immigrants from Viet Nam.  They had lived through difficult and challenging experiences escaping from Viet Nam and then living in refugee camps.  During our year together the children wrote about their experiences in coming to America.  I gave those stories to Eve Bunting who was inspired by reading them to write How Many Days to America?  So it was a special joy to read Inside Out & Back Again because it tells a similar story.  Ten-year-old, Há, begins the story when her family celebrates Tet, the first day of the lunar calendar, in Saigon.  The ensuing year unfolds great changes for Há and her family when they leave their war torn homeland, escape on a crowded ship, spend time in a refugee camp on Guam and finally travel to Alabama where they are sponsored by a mentor.  The story comes full circle ending on Tet in 1975.  The novel is told in evocative, lyrical verse that shows the emotional cost of the family experiences.  For example, Há writes the following account of being on the ship as water is rationed and food is scarce.

“Once Knew

Water, water, water/ everywhere/making me think/land is just something/I once knew/like/napping on a hammock/bathing without salt/watching Mother write/laughing for no reason/kicking up powdery dirt/and wearing clean nightclothes/smelling of the sun.”

When Há goes to school, the fourth grade, for the first time, she encounters bullying, has troubles with the new language and feels dumb all the time.  There is a positive portrayal of a teacher who provides support and understanding of Há ‘s situation.  Lai writes from her heart and captures the emotional upheavals of that year.  In her Author’s Note she explains that most of the details in the story are inspired by her own memories.  Reading this novel will help children build empathy for their immigrant friends and  classmates.


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