Inside Out & Back Again is an extraordinary book. It is written in free verse and tells the story of 11-year-old Ha and her family as they flee from South Vietnam in 1975. Ha, her mother and three older brothers board a ship and sail to meet an American rescue ship. They are then transported to a Florida refugee camp. They wait in the Florida camp for an American citizen to consent to sponsor their family. A man from Alabama does so and they proceed to move to Alabama, where many of their neighbors are not happy to see them move in–including their sponsor’s wife.
Thanhha Lai speaks briefly at the end of the book about how she modeled Ha’s journey on her own. Particularly poignant to me was Ha’s knowledge that she is smart, but feels stupid when placed in a classroom where she doesn’t know the language. Her inability to speak English right away seemed to imply a lack of intelligence to other people. How frustrating! Especially for a young girl who is still growing into a knowledge of herself. Racism and ignorance and unkindness are difficult hurdles we all navigate at some point in our lives, and Ha’s story emphasizes how much more difficult it is for her because she is forced to deal with these things in a strange new place, hobbled by a minimum understanding and ability to use the language–in this case, English.
A common thread I found between this book and The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang is the realization that often we do not have an understanding of what others around us–sometimes in our own families–have been through to arrive at where we are. In order for us to understand each other and appreciate each other with all our similarities and differences we need to share our stories. Language is so important to us as human beings–regardless of whether it is reading or speaking or listening to each other!
This is a terrific read-aloud selection for an upper middle grade class. It lends itself to discussions of tolerance, acceptance, immigration and emigration, geo-political events, Vietnamese history, history of the Vietnam War in the United States, etc. Because the story also includes her mother and brothers ther is something in this story with which every reader can identify. The book provides a springboard for us to begin telling our stories to each other. I highly recommend it as an independent or read-aloud selection.