Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  • Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • Author: Thanhha Lai
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0061962783
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 272
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; Newbery Honor

Author information: Inside Out and Back Again is Thanhha Lai’s first novel. She does not seem to have a website, but it is possible to find information about her on the HarperCollins website. This includes a short biography, her educational experience, hobbies and interests, and a link to information about her book. The National Book Foundation has an interview with Lai on their website, in which she talks about the power of language in terms of self-expression and her hope that her novel will inspire others who have gone through similar experiences to tell their stories.

Reviews: This book received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. These reviews agree that the format of the novel is innovative and is one of its greatest strengths, and they agree that Lai’s portrayal of Hà is moving and provides an honest depiction of a young Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Three of these reviews cite the humorous elements of Hà’s voice and how this provides a strong balance to the more serious and darker tones of the novel.

Readers annotation: Growing up in Vietnam during the war may be tough, but Hà thinks that living in Alabama might be worse.

Summary: Hà has spent her entire childhood in Saigon, but as the war increasingly threatens her family’s safety and way of life, her mother decides that they need to escape. Hà’s father, a Navy sailor, has been missing in action for years, but one of his friends tells her family about a ship that will be leaving Saigon and helps them flee Vietnam on it. After a long and uncomfortable voyage, their ship is rescued and Hà’s family decides to move to America. Their sponsor, a Christian Alabama man, lets them live with him and Hà and her brothers start trying to integrate into life in the South. Hà is not used to being “stupid” and not able to keep up in class, and many of the other students tease or threaten her. Hà eventually finds an ally in her neighbor Miss Washington, who tutors her and helps ease her transition into American life, and the novel ends with Hà and her family hopeful about the future and ready to build a new life in America.

Evaluation: The format of this book is the most obvious strength of the novel.  Hà’s story is told as a series of poems that are roughly in chronological order, and these poems are beautiful when taken individually, but they become a tour de force when combined. At first, the format can seem daunting, and the reader may not think that a strong narrative will be able to form with such a limited number of words, but the power of Hà’s voice and story transcend the format of the narrative and create a compelling plot. Hà is a sympathetic and relatable character, and readers will root for her success as well as feel badly for her troubles. The story also addresses themes that any child (or adult) can relate to, such as feeling like an outcast, being bullied, and being nostalgic for the past. Hà is a fully developed character who is portrayed with honesty; she is shown as being strong and smart and hardworking, but also as being conflicted and occasionally cruel and a bully herself. Aside from having a compelling plot and being written as heartbreakingly gorgeous poetry, this novel also provides a much-needed look at an immigrant’s difficulties adapting to life in a America, and does so with a fresh and unforgettable perspective.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is unique both in its subject matter and the format with which it tells Hà’s story. Readers will find themselves lingering over each short poem as well as absorbed in the larger narrative.
  • Popularity: 3/5  Although the poetry format of this novel is highly accessible and arguably easier for reluctant readers than a novel based in prose, some readers may be turned off at the sight of poetry and not want to read it due to its format. Those who do, however, will find Hà to be a compelling and likable character and will relate to her story, no matter what their personal experience with immigration or bullying may be. The novel encourages readers to think about larger themes of kindness, acceptance, and courage and how they may relate to their own lives.
  • Appeal factors: immigrant experience, poetry, strong female protagonist, humor, hopeful ending.


  1. R. J. Palacio’s Wonder could be a good fit for those who liked reading about a child who was outcast from her peers because she was different. Like Hà, August is different, although his difference is not his race, but rather a physical deformity. He’s teased in school and doesn’t fit in, but, as with Hà’s story, this novel ends on a positive and hopeful note.
  2. For readers who want more on the subject of the immigration experience, The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan could be a good fit. Although this book features a Polish girl who immigrates to England rather than a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to America, both protagonists have to struggle with alienation, adjusting to a new life, and absent fathers.

Book talk ideas: The major objection readers may have to picking up this book is also it’s greatest strength: the poetry. In order to dispell the myth that a book written in verse is inaccessible, read one or two of the stronger (spoiler-free) poems as a way to introduce the novel. Then discuss the plot, and how Hà is a girl who has had to leave the life she knew for an entirely different country, one in which she is teased, made to feel stupid, and does not fit in. Highlight the feelings that such a situation would raise, such as loneliness, fear, and nostalgia for an old life. Ask if anybody can relate to those feelings. Possibly end with another poem from the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What could the papaya tree represent? Why is Hà so obsessed with this fruit and its tree?
  2. Hà has difficulty adjusting from being a top student to one who struggles in school. How does this adjustment affect her? How would you feel if you were at an academic disadvantage like Hà?
  3. Although never seen in the story, Hà’s father is a presence throughout the narrative. How does Hà’s father influence/haunt each character?

Reason for reading: This book was on quite a few lists of Newbery honors and best books for children lists, and it looked like it could be interesting. I read the synopsis and it sounded unique, and I’ve never read an immigration story about leaving Vietnam during the war. I actually missed the fact that the narrative was a series of poems and I’m glad I did because I may not have checked it out if I knew. I think that may be the toughest part about selling this book to young readers–there is a stigma associated with poetry that makes readers feel like it is less accessible than prose and they may be reluctant to give this title a chance.

Additional relevant information: Inside Out and Back Again is semi-autobiographical and in part based on Lai’s own experiences as an immigrant. Her sponsor also lived in Alabama, and took on Lai’s entire family, ten people in all. It took Lai ten years to learn grammatically correct English.


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