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Most of the events in this novel were true for its author. Thanhha, like Há, lost her father in the Vietnam War, but Há's mother and older brothers never lose hope that he may return. Leaving Vietnam is hard for Há not only because it is her home but also because her papaya tree is there. And most importantly, if her father does return, what will he think when he comes home to find his family gone?
When they first come to America, they are sponsored by a family in Alabama, and Há quickly begins school. At school, she is teased by bullies for her dark skin and smooth, dark hair. What's worse is that she feels dumb at school. In Vietnam, she excelled and was the smartest child in her class! But in America, she cannot speak or understand English and wishes her classmates knew that she used to be smart. "Whoever invented English should have learned to spell," Há quips at one point. Fortunately, her teacher takes an avid interest in Há and tutors her in English, while her older brothers - one of whom drives a motorcycle - help to scare away the bullies.
While her teacher is a helpful tutor and good-intentioned, she shows her class photographs of a war-torn Vietnam to teach them about the place from which Há is from. The photos include "a burned, naked girl running, crying down a dirt road" and other tragedies, but Há wishes her teacher would have shown them photos of her papaya tree. She admits that she would prefer to live in a war-torn Vietnam than a peaceful Alabama.
These events offer an insightful look into what it must feel like to be a refuge or to move to a place in which a different language is spoken. Many ESL students would be able to relate to Há's dilemmas, and other students can consider what it must be like for students who do not speak English. The book is written in short verses, and each page leaves me wanting more! But I know that the author intended it this way since Há is telling the story and is still not particularly comfortable using English. Further, the short poems on each page make it ideal for students learning to speak English or for struggling readers; the text is manageable, and the meaning behind the words is affecting. Plus, the poems are written beautifully. The author certainly did not waste any words to craft her story.
I also feel that Inside Out and Back Again is a great novel for children because it features an outgoing, brave character in the face of adversity: Há herself! In the beginning of the book, at the celebration of Tét, or the New Year, it is customary for a boy to be the first person to step on the floor in the morning, as it will bring good luck for the rest of the year. However, Há decides that she wants to the be the bearer of good luck, so she sneaks out of bed and touches it first! I knew right from the beginning that Há would be extra-special, and she lived up to those expectations. Like her papaya tree in Vietnam, she may be small, but she grows and blossoms into something wonderful.
Inside Out and Back Again is a wonderful historical fiction novel written in a beautiful way. I fell in love with Há and her older brothers and wish that the story wouldn't have had to end. By capturing her story and encasing it into this novel, author Thanhha Lai has created an engrossing read for young readers. To read a copy of this book for yourself, check it out at your local library.