I love free verse narratives. There is magic in the simplicity and compression of the form and an elegance to the language that you don’t always find in prose. So when this ARC arrived, a first person narrative about a young girl fleeing Vietnam and settling in the US, as told through free verse, I snatched it right up. I’m so happy that I did. Inside Out and Back Again is a refreshing and accessible take on the child immigrant story.
Ha, our young narrator, is a Vietnamese girl who must flee to Alabama following the fall of Saigon. The reader learns bits and pieces about Ha’s life in Vietnam and her family’s spiritual beliefs, but its real strength is what it tells us about expectations and adjustment. This is not so much a novel about the Vietnam war, but a story about the struggles of settling into a new country and culture. Ha’s experiences in her first year in the US are varied. She is excluded and bullied at the hands of ignorant classmates, but she also makes new friends and is welcomed and treated with kindness by many people.
One of the aspects I liked best about this novel was how author Thanhha Lai describes the process of language acquisition. Ha is bright but knows very little English when she arrives in Alabama. Eventually she is hooked up with a loud but lovable tutor, Miss Washington. Their relationship is touching and will ring bells with anyone who has taught or tutored ESL students. One of the strengths of the verse novel is it appeals to readers who struggle with full novels. The language is carefully chosen, most authors prizing simplicity and clarity above all else, and the white space is encouraging. How perfect that in this novel the narrator is also struggling with reading. Free verse was the perfect form to convey both poetic sophistication of Ha’s observations as well as the constraints of learning a second language.
I am of the belief that it is important for children to learn about other cultures. Quite often these books focus on strife, war, and social or political injustices. Lai’s novel, although it deals with prejudice, war, and the trials of immigration, is generally positive and won’t upset sensitive readers. Ha is a narrator that many children will relate to, whether they are struggling with literacy, bullying, fitting in, or just looking to connect with a wholly satisfying novel.
Inside Out and Back Again is available in hard cover from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, in February.