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Inside Out and Back Again Hardcover – February 22, 2011
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*Starred Review* After her father has been missing in action for nine years during the Vietnam War, 10-year-old Hà flees with her mother and three older brothers. Traveling first by boat, the family reaches a tent city in Guam, moves on to Florida, and is finally connected with sponsors in Alabama, where Hà finds refuge but also cruel rejection, especially from mean classmates. Based on Lai’s personal experience, this first novel captures a child-refugee’s struggle with rare honesty. Written in accessible, short free-verse poems, Hà’s immediate narrative describes her mistakes—both humorous and heartbreaking—with grammar, customs, and dress (she wears a flannel nightgown to school, for example); and readers will be moved by Hà’s sorrow as they recognize the anguish of being the outcast who spends lunchtime hiding in the bathroom. Eventually, Hà does get back at the sneering kids who bully her at school, and she finds help adjusting to her new life from a kind teacher who lost a son in Vietnam. The elemental details of Hà’s struggle dramatize a foreigner’s experience of alienation. And even as she begins to shape a new life, there is no easy comfort: her father is still gone. Grades 4-8. --Hazel Rochman
“Open this book, read it slowly to savor the delicious language. This is a book that asks the reader to be careful, to pay attention, to sigh at the end.” (Kathi Appelt, bestselling author of Newbery Honor Book The Underneath)
“Based in Lai’s personal experience, this first novel captures a child–refugee’s struggle with rare honesty. Written in accessible, short free–verse poems, Hà’s immediate narrative describes her mistakes—both humorous and heartbreaking; and readers will be moved by Hà’s sorrow as they recognize the anguish of being the outcast.” (Booklist (starred review))
“The taut portrayal of Hà’s emotional life is especially poignant as she cycles from feeling smart in Vietnam to struggling in the States, and finally regains academic and social confidence. An incisive portrait of human resilience.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“An enlightening, poignant and unexpectedly funny novel in verse. In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“American and Vietnamese characters alike leap to life through the voice and eyes of a ten–year–old girl—a protagonist so strong, loving, and vivid I longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya.” (Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People)
“Lai’s spare language captures the sensory disorientation of changing cultures as well as a refugee’s complex emotions and kaleidoscopic loyalties.” (The Horn Book)
“Ha’s voice is full of humor and hope.” (School Library Journal (starred review))
“In this free-verse narrative, Lai is sparing in her details, painting big pictures with few words and evoking abundant visuals.” (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)
“Told in compelling free verse.” (Brightly.com)
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Usually I am not a big fan of novels written in free verse. I like my poetry to be poetry and my stories to be prose. But I have had the privilege of reading this book and several others that have convinced me that done right, free verse can be particularly powerful. This story is based on the author's experiences as a child and maybe that's why they are so realistic. I promise you will not be able to read this book without feeling compassion for Ha and her family. You will cheer for their successes and feel discomfort at the poor treatment they receive from many. The book provides a thought-provoking look at a topic (immigration) that remains controversial still. Highly recommended.