Inside Out & Back Again

I have vague memories of going with my mom to visit the Vietnamese family her church sponsored after they fled in boats from their war-torn home. I remember a small apartment that smelled of unfamiliar food. I was very shy because I couldn’t understand what they said. They gave me and my brother striped polyester sweatshirts that their boys had outgrown. Before long they left Pennsylvania, we think for California? My memories are scattered, but they’ve stuck with me for 40 years.

Inside Out & Back Again is written in free verse from the point of view of Ha, a 10 year old girl fleeing Vietnam with her family in 1975. It’s a quick read, with tons of events and feelings packed into not very many words. Partially autobiographical, it’s an emotional story that made me cry a few times. I think part of why it hit so hard is because I remembered that family and I wonder what happened to them and if this mirrors any of the things they experienced.

The short poems keep you ripping through the book—you can always read one more. It’s mostly vignettes of Ha’s experiences, so there isn’t exactly a strong plot, but it had no trouble keeping my attention. The author’s note at the end, about writing this for her nieces and nephews so they could have a better idea of what it was like for their parents to live through this, brought everything into perspective for me; I kind of wished I’d read it first.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

I started out taking a ton of notes as I read. It seemed like every page had an issue, a trauma, a moving moment. I’m going to step back and mostly discuss general themes you might want to know about.


Although it’s mostly background—Ha’s friend gets to evacuate early because she’s rich—classism is very much a defining factor in Vietnam.


When Ha’s family gets to Alabama, she notices the segregation. She’s also aware that she is neither black nor white, and therefore belongs nowhere. Seeing people through her eyes is enlightening for those who haven’t been immersed in a place where they are very much a minority. Some people sponsored Vietnamese families to get money from the government and cheap labor. Ha and her family are definitely seen as “less” by many people in their neighborhood.


Ha’s family is Buddhist and practices that at home, but their sponsor has them baptized publicly against their will so that they will be more accepted in the neighborhood. Ha’s mother puts “Christian” on their papers to increase the chances of them getting sponsored.


As Ha learns to speak English, everyone in her school assumes she’s stupid because she can’t express herself in a way they understand. She was an exceptional student in Vietnam and is in classes well below her education, so the assumption that she’s stupid hurts her deeply.


There is a lot of bullying throughout. Ha is physically threatened and fears for her life. When she’s given a chance to get revenge, she realizes that hurting her bully isn’t nearly as satisfying as she thought it would be.


Ha’s dad is missing and has been for years; they hope he is alive, but have to assume that he’s dead. Her brothers tease her. She feels the sexism of being the only girl. She chafes against being the youngest. The family’s struggles throughout are very hard, and they don’t always handle it gracefully. But it’s obvious they love each other and are trying, even when they fail.


Their life in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon was nearly unimaginable to me. They fled in fear of death, smuggled in a boat. A neighbor who is kind to Ha lost her 20 year old son in Vietnam.


Ha is frequently selfish, in ways that are totally normal for a young girl. She’s neither punished nor praised for this. It’s just part of her, part that she is starting to recognize and grow out of. It makes her very real and easy to identify with.


Death is a backdrop to much of the book—the fear of it, the aftermath of it. The most heartbreaking, though, is the death of a chick one of Ha’s brothers smuggled on board the boat. He is in denial and they have to forcefully take the chick’s body from him. It’s heartbreaking.


Ha misses Vietnam so much. Her family tries to make things as normal as possible, but things will never be like they were. Eventually she comes to terms with the United States being her home—not the same, but ok.


I found it moving and insightful. It made me think and it made me cry. It doesn’t have a rip-roaring plot, so it’s best for thoughtful readers, but the verse means you don’t get mired in text. I’d recommend it for precocious readers maybe 9 years and up who can handle some social issues, and for reluctant readers who want meaty content without struggling with walls of text. And really, you should go read it too.


Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Published in 2011 by Scholastic
Read my personal copy

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