The Plot: Thanhha Lai's 2011 Inside Out and Back Again, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the National Book Award for Young People (along with Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and Virginia Euwer Wolff's True Believer, one of only three verse novels to ever win the award), follows 10-year-old Hà during a period of one year in her life in which she flees Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and then struggles to adjust to her new life in Alabama. As Lai explains in her author's note, "much of what happened to Hà... also happened to me" (261). Lai further notes that her goal in writing Inside Out and Back Again was to capture Hà's emotional life on the page, as well as use her own memories to provide insight into the beauties of Vietnam and the "challenges of starting over in a strange land" for first generation Vietnamese-American children (262). The narrative begins with the poem "1975: Year of the Cat" and describes how Hà's family celebrates the first day of the lunar calendar. Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers in Saigon; her father has been MIA for the past nine years. Early poems also focus on Hà's beloved papaya tree.
The Poetry: Lai's verse novel utilizes free verse, often with a short line, throughout her narrative. Because Hà is intently focused on learning a new language during a good portion of the narrative, several poems make use of sound (particularly the elongated S-sound). The poem "War and Peace" is an interesting example of Lai's use of ekphrasis and makes use of anaphora, imagery, and caesura to delve into her young protagonist's experience of her American teacher's belittling her culture. (This poem calls to mind a similar experience detailed in Marilyn Nelson's title poem in How I Discovered Poetry.) The poem begins, "MiSSS SScott / shows the class / photographs" and the four stanzas that follow go on to describe iconic images of the Vietnam War; most notably the second stanza describes Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Terror of War" depicting "a burned, naked girl / running, crying / down a dirt road" (194). The speaker of the poem goes on to lament this reductive description of where she is from that leaves out the things she loves most about her country.
The Page: Divided into four sections--"Saigon," "At Sea," "Alabama," and "From Now On"-- each poem ends with either a specific date or more general temporal designations such as "every day." The verse novel opens and closes with a poem on the lunar new year (1975 and 1976), emphasizing the tumultuous year in the protagonist's life and the hope she has for the future in her new home.
As a genealogical verse novel, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again is an example of an award-winning work that explores the immigrant experience in a nuanced way that does not sugar-coat the harsh realities of racism faced by the young protagonist and her family. I give Inside Out and Back Again five stars.