Inside Out and Back Again. 2011. Thanhha Lai. New York: HarperCollins. 260pp.

Genre: Free-verse novel done in the form of journal entries

Ages: Grade 4 and up. The reading level makes this text accessible for younger readers; however, the concepts are profound, making it equally appealing to older students or even adults.

Winner of the National Book Award

Summary

When is the last time you remember finishing a book and just hugging it for a moment? That was my response upon finishing Inside Out and Back Again, a deeply moving story of loss and recovery from poet extraordinaire Thanhha Lai. The book touched me in part, I think, because I recall so well that when I was ten, my parents decided to move to a bigger, newer house. I could not imagine what they could be thinking. This new “better” house was only ten miles from the tiny home I’d grown up in—but might as well have been a universe away. Leaving the old neighborhood, the horse farm, my room, and friends who couldn’t easily travel ten miles spelled nothing but heartache. That move, however, was an insignificant bump in the road compared to the experience of author Thanhha Lai and her protagonist Hà.

Ten-year-old Hà has grown up in Saigon, and in her head and heart live the sounds, sights, and smells that make that city home. Now the Vietnam War is encroaching, and Saigon is about to fall. Together with her mother and older brothers, Hà boards a ship that will take her away from danger—and immeasurably far from everything she knows and loves. Ultimately, the family is sponsored by the unforgettable “Cowboy” (so-called only because of his hat) in Alabama, and adjustments must be made all around. The Cowboy’s wife is less than proud of her new tenants, the children at school are insensitive and often cruel, the food is strange, and Hà’s father—and home—remain achingly out of reach. In an Author’s Note to the reader (p. 262), author Thanhha Lai, whose personal experience mirrors that of Hà, says, “I extend this idea to all: How much do we know about those around us?” That is the underlying question of the book.

Skillfully, gently, subtly, Lai reveals the face of prejudice. We see all too well, all too uncomfortably, how easy it is to judge others quickly, to overlook their less than obvious gifts, or to use humor as an excuse for bullying. You will cheer for Hà, who has so much to overcome: the loss of a home to which she may never return, the mystery surrounding her captured father, her struggles to learn a language (English) that seems to have no logic to it whatsoever (these entries provide welcome comic relief), and the merciless teasing from peers who seem both oblivious to her capabilities and contemptuous of her culture. Hà is a refreshingly quiet hero, yet one with an indomitable spirit. She doesn’t leap from buildings, face down fires and wild beasts, or best caricature villains with her immortal powers. Instead, she deals in her own brave way with the challenges and heartaches of life amidst a world of strangers.

Lai’s free verse poetry is seductively engaging. It begs to be read aloud. Her language is by turns mesmerizingly descriptive, heart-stoppingly blunt, and hilariously comic—in a slyly understated way. The characters, particularly Hà, her mother, and the wondrous Miss Washington (truly the fairy godmother of this book), are so vivid and well-drawn you feel you know them. Luckily, it’s a fast read because you’ll want to read it more than once. Buy two copies—that way, you can give one as a gift.

 In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. You’ll find the pages flying by, and may need to remind yourself to slow down so you don’t miss anything. If reading aloud is a regular part of your class routine, you can readily share the whole book, perhaps one part (there are four) at a time. Or—choose favorite sections for yourself. Do plan to share at least some of the book aloud to hear the rhythm of the beautiful free verse.

2. Background. Hà comes from Saigon, during the time of the Vietnam War. How many of your students know where Saigon is? You may wish to locate it on a map, together with the country of Vietnam. (How far did Hà travel to reach America?) Talk about how the country was once divided into North and South sections. You may also wish to discuss, briefly, details about the Vietnam War—particularly the fall of Saigon. Interested students may wish to do some research on the evacuation of South Vietnamese refugees, via Operation Frequent Wind or other means. (Some may be interested to discover the role played by Irving Berlin’s famous song “White Christmas” during this evacuation.)

3. Personal connection. Much of the book centers around the theme of moving to a new land, where customs, people, climate, clothing, language, food—everything, in short—is different. Spend a little time talking about the concept of “home.” What things connect us to the place we think of as home? (Consider something as small as Hà’s love for papayas, p. 21.) What does it mean to move—even a short distance? How many of your students have experienced some kind of move? What is exciting or wonderful about moving? What is difficult? Narrative writing: The story behind any move makes an outstanding narrative topic.

4. Topic. From the book’s dust jacket (inside back panel) we learn that Thanhha Lai herself, like her protagonist Hà, grew up in Vietnam, and later moved to Alabama, via ship, following the fall of Saigon. As you read through the book, occasionally reflect on which elements have the kind of authentic detail that suggests they were inspired by real life experience. How does the use of experience help to make virtually any writing stronger? (For more information on Lai or any favorite author, go to www.authortracker.com)

5. What’s in a name? Hà undergoes much teasing over her name (see “Sadder Laugh,” pp. 139ff.). Is this kind of teasing a form of bullying? (Take time to talk about the actual meaning of Hà’s name, pp. 5-7.) Have students write reflective pieces on their own names: origin and meaning, what they love, what they might change. Ask volunteers to share their writing aloud.

6. Persuasive writing/argument. Follow-up to point #5: As Americans, do we have an inclination to make fun of others for the sake of humor? Where do we see evidence of this? Argument: Is humor that comes at the expense of someone else’s feelings sometimes justified for the sake of a good joke—or even social commentary? Or is it misguided—even a form of verbal abuse? Ask students to respond to this issue, citing events in this or other books as well as examples from everyday life.

7. Character. Characters are defined, in part, by their motivations, or by the things they wish for. Read the chapter called “Birthday Wishes” (pp. 30-31) aloud. What do they tell about Hà? Are there things even her own family does not know about her? What makes this such a revealing chapter? Have students compose a “Birthday Wishes” free verse poem (or paragraph) of their own, sharing any personal wishes they feel comfortable revealing.

8. Setting/Sensory Detail. The Common Core Standards for Narrative emphasize that one of the best ways to create a sense of setting is through the use of sensory detail. Read the chapter titled “A Day Downtown” aloud (pp. 32-36). Either orally or in writing, list the sensory details that jump out: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings. How vivid is Hà’s portrait of her downtown area? Does the author make us feel as if we’re right there in the marketplace? Have students create a similar sketch of any environment that has a distinctive memory for them. Ask them to begin by making a sensory chart, listing all the sights, sounds, etc. that they associate with the place—and then write. Creating a “cache” of sensory impressions first makes writing easier, and helps ensure that vital details are not forgotten. (Note: You will find many recipes for bánh cuốn—“rolled cake”—online. Students may enjoy looking these up, and even trying to make this traditional Vietnamese dish at home.)

9. Revealing character through situations. As the Common Core Standards for Narrative remind us, we learn about characters by seeing them in a variety of situations and noting the choices they make in those situations.  Following are just a handful of (many possible) chapters to discuss from this perspective, each of them revealing something important about the book’s main character, Hà: “Choice,” p. 55; “Last Respects,” pp. 85-86; “Loud Outside,” pp. 145-146; “An Engineer, a Chef, a Vet, and Not a Lawyer,” pp. 255-256. Whenever students write their own narratives, encourage them to put the main character (who is sometimes the author) in a situation that tests that character or offers an important choice. This lets the reader in on who that character really is.

10. Second language. Do any of your students speak English as a second language? How many know a language (or languages) in addition to English? Do you? Discuss some of the challenges involved in learning another language. What is most difficult? What kinds of things help? Share the chapters titled “First Rule,” “Second Rule,” “Third Rule,” “Fourth Rule” and “Spelling Rules” aloud (pp. 118, 123, 128, 135, and 177 respectively). What do these chapters reveal about Hà? About English? Argument: Have students write a short argument about why it is (or is not) important for anyone to learn a second language. What might we learn in addition to new words?

11. Evidence. In keeping with the Common Core Standards, we know that any good literary analysis relies on evidence from the text to support a position. With that in mind, have students write on any one of the following topics (or one of their own choosing), using specific quotations from the text to support their position:

  • Which other character from the book ultimately has the most influence over Hà?
  • Does Hà change in the course of the book—and if so, how?
  • Who is the most moral character in this book?

12. Organization. The author uses several organizational structures in presenting this story. How many can your students identify? (Examples: chronological order via journal dates; dividing the book into four parts, based on major events and settings; dividing parts into chapters, based on smaller events)

13. Voice. Is the voice influenced by the fact that this novel is written in first person? If it were written in third person, would the voice be as strong? Why? Voice is sometimes described as the capability of text to touch readers. What does this book make your students feel? In responding to this question, you may wish to focus on a particularly emotional chapter, such as “Pancake Face,” pp. 196-197. Suggestion: Have students respond to this question in writing, citing specific chapters or events that touched them. If students have their own copies of the book, ask them to identify the quotation that moved them most. Close by asking volunteers to share their responses orally.

14. Irony. Even with war raging all around them, Hà’s family lives for a time (prior to fleeing Saigon) in a virtual Eden. What other examples of irony can your students identify in this book?

15. Fluency. This is a book that truly must be enjoyed aloud. Have students choose specific passages to “perform,” and use this experience to discuss the fluency of Lai’s powerful free verse. Is free verse a form your students like? Why?

16. Ending.  Strong narratives, according to the Common Core Standards, have endings that seem to follow logically from the sequence of events in the story. Is that the case here? Ask students to summarize what happens at the end of the story, and to comment on it. Is the ending satisfying and appropriate? Is it what they were expecting? What feels “right” about this ending? Would they change or add anything?

17. Predictions—and “voice collage.” Does Hà ever return to her home? What do your students think? Try this voice collage activity, a combination of role playing and writing. Imagine Hà’s world ten years from now. Have students, in small groups of 4 or 5, each assume one role from the book: Hà, her mother, Miss Washington, Vu Lee, the Cowboy, Pink Boy, etc. Ask each to write a journal entry from that character’s perspective about his or her life at that point. (This takes about ten minutes.) Divide the completed journal entries (at any point) into two parts: Part 1, Part 2. (Just put in a slash  to mark the division: /) Have groups read their entries aloud in readers’ theater fashion—all the Part 1s first, then around the circle again to hear all the Part 2s. The effects will be striking and dramatic. This is a painless form of literary analysis that asks students (almost without their realizing it) to look deep into character.

18. A word from the author. Follow author Thanhha Lai’s excellent advice from the Author’s Note at the end of this book: “I also hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story” (p. 262). Have students do some personal research, interviewing anyone for whom moving was a traumatic or life changing experience, then writing up the results.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for part 2 of our Down the Rabbit Hole series. Within the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything—sounds pretty comprehensive, so you don’t want to miss it. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, please call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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