(C) Ages 8-10, (D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Discussion Starters, Historical Fiction, Middle Grades, Multicultural, Poetry
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Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai

Inside Out and Back Again is a beautiful, timely middle grades verse novel about a young Vietnamese girl’s refugee experience.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai. HarperCollins, 2013 (reprint). 288 pages.

  • Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12
  • Recommended For: Middle grades, ages 10-12, and up!

10-year-old Hà and her family desperately flee South Vietnam as Saigon falls, boarding a boat they hope will take them out of chaos and towards a better future. Once they arrive in America after their perilous journey, their cowboy-hat-wearing sponsor helps them settle into their new home in Alabama. Hà and her family try to adapt as best they can, but people don’t understand their language, culture, or religion–nor do they want to understand. All Hà wants is something familiar, like a simple papaya.

Hà’s adjustment, or lack thereof, to America is heartbreaking and such a window into the refugee experience. So many things we take for granted seem completely alien to those from another country. So many things they used to take for granted are no longer available–for instance, Hà couldn’t get a fresh papaya in America in the 1970’s. Now, you can find them all over. Have we improved in other areas, though? Are we loving our refugee neighbors any better?

Kids will respond to this book even though it is a verse novel. Lai’s verse is beautifully written, concise in a breathtaking way as the reader gleans what is really going on. Hà is easy to identify with, despite her different cultural background. There is much food for thought in this gentle coming-of-age story, particularly for those of us who claim to be Christians and live in America.

Discussion Questions

Consider some of the following questions after you read this book with your family or classroom:

  • Note: some kids may need some background on the Vietnam War, so be prepared for that! They may also like to see a clip of Bruce Lee (plenty abound on YouTube). Trust me on this.
  • How do we Christians come across to those of other faiths?
  • Do we only care about the numbers “saved”?
  • What about the real state of their hearts?
  • How do we, as mainstream Americans, treat the “other”?
  • Do we nurture them and show them how to make the best of their American experience even as we try to understand their cultural background, or do we shun them and stick to our own understandings of their culture?
  • How well do we treat each person as made in the image of God?
  • Compare/contrast how the different Americans treated Hà and her family–would you give someone from a different religious background something related to their religion? Would you stick to something more “Christian”?
  • What does it mean to love our neighbor?

This review was adapted from an earlier review I wrote on Literaritea. (and I predicted the awards!) Janie also wrote an earlier review that includes more details from the book–it’s worth a read!

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