Thanhha Lai’s debut novel INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In this story written in verse, we meet Hà, a ten year old girl living in South Vietnam in 1975. For United States, the war has ended, but in Vietnam, the battle continues. As Saigon falls to the northern forces, Hà, her mother, and three older brothers escape on a ship and become refugees in Alabama.
While written as fiction, the story is largely autobiographical. Author Lai knows firsthand the trials endured by Hà and her family – prejudice, poverty, language and cultural barriers. She remembers the loss of everything familiar, such as friends, traditional food and native customs, the colorful markets, and Hà’s beloved backyard papaya tree. The beautifully written poetry facilitates a strong emotional connection with Hà. We fear for their survival at sea. Our hearts break as she and her family struggle to integrate into American society. We cheer as her brothers work hard for success and Hà overcomes a relentless school bully. We mourn with them as they accept the reality that they will never again see their father, a Vietnamese soldier who disappeared nine years earlier. Despite their dire circumstances, the author weaves a theme of hope throughout the story. I highly recommend this book for lovers of middle grade historical fiction and stories in verse.