Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
For Ha, the staggering loss of leaving her home and her father, the indignity of life on a refugee ship, the struggle to find her place in a new land are a story that can be told through food.
She grapples with complex situations and emotions and throughout. The story of her journey also one sustenance. As her home in Vietnam is threatened, food becomes more scarce, sweet potatoes stretching rice to make meals last longer. Leaving as a refugee doesn’t just mean abandoning her home and life, it means leaving the beautiful unripe green papayas still growing in her yard. The journey by ship certainly details the difficulties of bathing and bathroom use, but it is the moldy handfuls of rice stowed consumed while smelling the delicacies hoarded by shipmates that render Ha the most homesick. Her first meals off ship reflect the trauma of eating an entirely unfamiliar cuisine and the pure relief when someone has supplied fish sauce, nuoc mam, for the use of the refugees. As Ha and her family settle in, their hopes and aspirations are tempered by disappointments, often reflected in the foods, the fried chicken which has an alluring crust is texturally wrong for people used to eating poultry fresh from their own yards. As Ha finally begins to feel at home, her crushing disappointment at being given dried papaya is alleviated by her mother’s clever solution to soak the pieces to make them closer to fresh.
Books connect in different ways to each reader. Some will surely associate most with Ha’s lunches, spent hiding in school bathrooms, her skin color leaving her somewhere in between the two main groups of children. Others will appreciate her neighbor who provides her a safe environment for working on her English. The protection given Ha by her brothers will strike a chord many. I know many young girls will bristle at Ha’s Mother’s proclamation that “only male feet can bring luck” just as Ha does. As a reader, I cannot resist books about food, the ones that make your mouth water with longing (and yes, if you have good access to Vietnamese food, you might want to plan a dinner out in Ha’s honor after reading this) and so the way that Thanhha Lai used food to help describe Ha’s journey spoke to me.
Great for: We are currently facing a major worldwide refugee crisis, so this is a very timely read. If you want to get readers thinking about what it means to leave your home, what challenges will be faced by refugees, this is a great starting place. In particular, the way that Ha’s family was sponsored by an American family is quite similar to how the Syrian refugees are being handled in parts of the world. Reading this in conjunction with recent articles would provide a great opportunity for comparison, especially with older readers. A major point of discussion should be how Ha’s family is awaiting sponsorship, longer than some others, because in America people are more willing to help Christians. This is definitely something to reflect upon in relation to the current refugee situation.
Age Recommendation: Grades 3 and up Despite the difficult topic of a father missing during wartime, I would feel completely comfortable reading this with third graders and I’ve certainly taught many who would have been strong enough readers to enjoy it. I don’t know that there’s really an upper limit on who would enjoy it, I think it could be very useful for even middle school and high school students. There’s nothing babyish about it and it will resonate with ELL readers.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – None.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – War is coming. The presidential palace in bombed. Bombs fall, gunfire can be heard. A baby chick dies, it is carried dead, with someone for quite some time. People try to commit suicide (one tries to throw herself off a ship, another stabs himself with a toothbrush). At school a girl is pushed and touched. She is followed home. A brick is thrown through a window with a threatening note. Students are shown a photo of a burned, naked girl, of skeletal refugees. A girl’s hair is pulled, not as a tease, but in violent bullying. A student fights back after being bullied.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – An American man smokes a cigar and chews tobacco.
Frightening or Intense Things – Her father was captured. His fate unknown. Families are poor and don’t have enough food. The family’s house is egged, their yard toilet papered. A child is teased and mocked. They decide to say goodbye to their father despite not knowing his fate.