2012 Honor: Inside Out & Back Again (A Refugee in America)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai follows a Vietnamese girl named Ha, who escapes from South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon. When her family relocates to Alabama, she has trouble fitting in with her new classmates and adapting to American culture.

The novel is written completely in verse and effortlessly hits all the emotional points of a refugee’s journey. Since the book is based on the author’s own experiences, it was interesting to read about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a young Vietnamese girl and her struggles in America. Throughout the narrative, we see Ha completely at peace with her life in Vietnam, but when the war breaks out and she moves to America, her whole life falls apart – which makes for an interesting read – as she must build up her life again.

Ha’s refugee narrative would appeal to children who feel like outsiders when dealing with everyday issues at home and at school. Her isolation is depressing to read about as the other children bully her for her Vietnamese looks, odd sounding name, and the fact that she cannot speak English very well. She finds solace in her family, which includes her mother and several brothers, and ends up embracing both her Vietnamese heritage and new American traditions with an optimistic spirit that is inspiring to read about.

While I very much enjoyed this story, I couldn’t help but compare it to Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust – which takes a pivotal time in history and expresses the protagonist’s trials and tribulations through verse. Inside Out & Back Again pales in comparison to this other Newbery winner as the writing here doesn’t allow the protagonist’s emotion to come through in the same compelling way. The poetry doesn’t really add much to the story, and I would have much preferred to read a more in depth narrative about Ha pushing through her problems. I felt that the poetry only let the reader take a small glimpse into the narrator’s life and didn’t truly dig into her life struggles in a complex or unique way.

Inside Out & Back Again showcases how one girl adapts to the changes in her life, even though it oftentimes makes her feel more alone than ever before. I’d recommend this novel to middle school students who are interested in the Vietnam War or to those who enjoy exploring history through poetry.

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