Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: Inside Out & Back Again – Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again – Thanhha Lai

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by, and the beauty of her very own papaya tree. 
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape, and the strength of her very own family.

Review: One of my goals this year was to read more novels-in-verse. I’ve been slacking badly on that goal, but better late than never, right?

Inside Out & Back Again is an #Ownvoices middlegrade novel that is loosely based on the author’s experiences as a Vietnamese refugee in the US. The story is narrated by Hà, a curious and intelligent ten-year-old. After the Vietnam War forces Hà’s family from their home, they settle in Alabama, where everything is strange. The food tastes bad, the people dress weirdly, Hà’s new classmates are bullies, and English makes no sense. Hà survived a war, but now she faces a whole new set of challenges.

“Oh, my daughter,
at times you have to fight,
but preferably
not with your fists.” – Inside Out & Back Again

For an adult, this book is a very quick read. It’s less than 300 pages and written in simple verse. I finished it in one sitting. It may also be a good book for reluctant readers (if you can convince them that poetry doesn’t suck). The plot is straightforward, the cast of characters is small, and there aren’t many words on each page. Kids might get a sense of accomplishment from turning pages so quickly.

I love Hà. She’s such a sweet kid. To me, she comes across as a believable ten-year-old with childlike concerns. She wants to know what they serve for lunch at school and why the men in cowboy hats don’t own horses. Those are probably the same questions I would’ve had as a kid in a strange place. Especially the horses thing. I was obsessed with horses as a kid. I would have been very disappointed to find a cowboy who didn’t own a horse.

The author does an excellent job of capturing the disorientation of being in a new country. There’s one scene where Hà is looking up words in the dictionary, but there are so many definitions for each word that she gets confused. She goes from being a smart kid in Vietnam to feeling dumb in America. She observes everything that goes on around her, but she can’t really participate because she doesn’t understand what’s happening. All she knows is that she’s different.

“I’m hiding in class
by staring at my shoes.
I’m hiding during lunch
in the bathroom,
eating hard rolls
saved from dinner.
I’m hiding during outside time
in the same bathroom.
I’m hiding after school
until Brother Khôi
rides up to
our secret corner.” – Inside Out & Back Again

Admittedly, I’m not a poetry expert, but I think there are a few brilliant poems in this novel and a lot of “meh” poems. To me, most of the poems seem like chopped-up prose. They don’t do anything unique with language or structure. They could have been written as a block of text, and the effect would have been the same. I know that this is a book for kids, so it can’t be too complicated, but I would have liked to see more variety (or creativity) in the poems.

The choppy poetry is an effective way to show Hà’s alienation, though. Everyone around her speaks fluent English. While her classmates jabber away, she struggles to string words together. Her classmates are reading novels, and she’s trying to pronounce the letter S.

This isn’t my favorite novel-in-verse, but I can see why it has won so many awards. It shows the challenges that refugees face when they come to a new country. The author’s real-life experiences give the novel authenticity. If you’re new to reading novels-in-verse, this would be a good place to start. The characters are likeable, and the plot is compelling. And, the poems won’t kill you. I promise.

“Our lives
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and the new
until it doesn't matter
which is which.” – Inside Out & Back Again


  1. I love novels in verse. Just finished Booked by Kwame Alexander and Solo by the same author. So far, he's my favorite for verse novels.

    1. I really need to read a Kwame Alexander book. I’ve heard so many good things about them.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. You always seem to find the most interesting books to read. I don't think I have read a book in verse before so I am kind of intrigued by this one. Great review!

    1. Thanks! You should try novels-in-verse. There are some really good ones out there.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. I want to read more novels-in-verse. I haven't read too many actually. Maybe one or two, which is pretty pathetic. I love the idea of them though. I happen to have this one on my TBR shelf and was thinking of reading it soon. The tie in to Vietnam is what first caught my attention.