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Based on a True Story, Diversity in Literature, Free Verse, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers

A HOUSE WITHOUT WALLS by Ching Yeung Russell

A House Without Walls was an unexpected find for me at the library and I am so very glad that it was! It is the story of Lam (11 years old) and her brother Dee Dee (7 years old) and their flight from Vietnam in 1979 as part of ‘the Boat People.’ The author met the brother and sister upon whom the story is based in 1986, was in awe of their hazardous journey to the United States and felt compelled to tell their story.

I was in elementary school in 1979 and I remember hearing about the church “sponsoring” refugees, but I really had no idea what that meant. A House Without Walls puts faces and names on the tide of refugees from Vietnam at that time. The story resonated with me for that reason and in light of the refugee crisis we are experiencing currently on a worldwide level.

Lam and Dee Dee and the others on their overcrowded boat are refused entrance to several countries because they are unwilling to accept more refugees into their economic and social situations. Lam describes it as feeling she is a burden:

I feel so low.

It just dawned on me that

we are a burden for others.

We are not welcome.

Our lives seem so worthless

that no one in the world

can be bothered

to give us a hand.

I was immediately drawn into Lam’s story. I read the entire book in one sitting. I do think stories like these, when told through the structure of free verse, can be especially evocative of both place and emotion because the words are chosen so specifically and each word carries so much of the story individually. That is definitely the case here.

A House Without Walls might be difficult to use as a read-aloud in a 3rd – 5th grade class because it does specifically refer to Lam’s fear of being raped by pirates, which not all children may understand and that’s a dificult conversation to have in a classroom where so many students are at different developmental places in their growth and capacity for understanding. It would work as an independent read for older, middle-grade students. It could also easily work as a parent-child buddy read, offering a wealth of opportunities for discussion on refugees, immigration, empathy, social justice, etc.

If you enjoy A House Without Walls, I highly recommend Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Lai’s story tells more about her adjustment to life in the United States after arriving there and  A House Without Walls focuses on the journey from Vietnam  to the U.S.



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