Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Books and Authors
The author of the semiautobiographical Inside Out and Back Again, a National Book Award winner and a Newbery Honor Book, discusses the experience of writing about the Vietnam War, Fall of Saigon, and displacement of Vietnamese families through the lens of her own experience.
It’s 1975 and Hà is 10, living with her mother and three brothers in Saigon. But war looms ever closer: Hà’s father, a soldier, has been missing for nine years, and her mother knows that sooner or later, she will have to get her family out of Vietnam. In careful, thoughtful free verse, Thanhhà Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (2011) tells the story of one family’s escape to America through Hà’s eyes, and the difficulties that come with learning to live in an entirely new world (“No one would believe me / but at times / I would choose / wartime in Saigon / over / peacetime in Alabama”).
Lai’s second novel, Listen, Slowly (2015), returns to the Vietnam War, but from a present-day angle: at 12, Mai (Mia to her friends at school) is a second-generation immigrant, a born-and-raised California girl whose parents and grandparents fled Saigon decades earlier when it fell. Now new information has come to light about her grandfather, a soldier who disappeared during the war, and a reluctant Mai is bundled off to Vietnam with her father and her grandmother, leaving her dreams of a summer at the beach behind as she is immersed in a culture that she finds, at first, almost completely foreign.
“Oh, my daughter,” Hà’s mother tells her as they struggle to adjust to life in America, “at times you have to fight / but preferably / not with your fists.” Like Hà, Lai lived through the war and fled to America at a very young age. Through her two novels, she showcases the power that words can have in the face of hardship, and honors the difficulties faced by many people across the globe. In the following conversation, she discusses her writing process, her experiences with the next generation, and the use of her personal history in her fiction.
Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly both deal with girls who have a foot in two worlds, albeit with two very different voices—10-year-old Hà and her family are fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon, while 12-year-old Mai/Mia is the next generation, a California girl sent to her parents’ home country for the summer. What were the challenges of writing in these two distinct voices—with Hà in verse, and Mai in prose—from two distinct periods? Did you find one easier than the other?
LAI: It took me 15 years to invent the voice for Hà. I needed a way to convey that she was thinking in Vietnamese. As a new refugee, she wouldn’t know English yet, so as I wrote and wrote in sentences, the voice never seemed authentic. When short phrases (which I now know are called prose poems) popped into my head, I knew instantly the lyrical cadences within the phrases were a perfect match for how Hà would process thoughts in Vietnamese, a language that’s naturally poetic.
For Mai/Mia’s voice in Listen, Slowly, it took me a day to secure the language of a spoiled Southern Cal surfer girl thinking in slangy, snarky English. It was so easy to write that I attributed it to the universe making amends for the previous 15-year torment.
Once I’m inside a character’s head, it doesn’t matter which style I’m writing in, prose or verse. For me, character dictates voice, so once I find the right one, I’m in. The trick is coming up with the voice in the first place.
REAGAN: At the end of Inside Out and Back Again, you say that Hà’s experiences were very closely based on your own. Hà’s character and world are drawn so vividly—did you have to do any research for the novel, or did you rely on memory? What was it like to revisit that time in your life as an adult?
LAI: After writing in circles for 15 years, I was thrilled to settle on one character based on myself. I did it on purpose so I wouldn’t have to do research. And I made it fiction rather than a memoir so I wouldn’t have to deal with the truth. I didn’t trust my memories.
Remembering Hà’s emotions was distant and actually fun. Thirty-five years had passed by the time I happened upon the voice for Hà. I already processed through the bewilderment and anger of my first year in Alabama. Time: it cools just about every emotion.
REAGAN: Mai in Listen, Slowly is very much an American tween, and at first she expresses little interest in her Vietnamese heritage or in, as she thinks of it, “THE WAR.” Have you encountered similar resistance or disinterest from the second generation? What do you hope kids take away from Mai’s story?
LAI: I have seen this sort of disinterest from tweens with a bicultural background, but I think it has more to do with being 12 than anything else. At this age, they want to fit in and all that. I have noticed in my clan of nieces and nephews that by high school and definitely college, they suddenly want to claim their heritage. But at 12, they are still resisting just to resist.
For readers’ responses, it really depends on their age. If around 12, my message is rebel all you want, but your heritage is already marinated into your blood. It’s a matter of time before you find your parents’ stories really interesting. If older, they will likely laugh at their younger selves and agree that their parents and grandparents are living history.
This notion extends to all readers, not just those with a foot in a place across the world. Your grandparents might have grown up on a farm in Kansas and that can be fascinating if you sit down and ask questions.
REAGAN: Your work features many strong women who deal with various hardships—Hà’s mother, in particular, and Mai’s grandmother and the women she meets in Vietnam. Growing up, were you surrounded by such women? What similar role models would you suggest to young readers?
LAI: My mother was born into a wealthy family in North Vietnam, and was told she only had to write poetry and look pretty and everything would be taken care of—then bam: war. By 35, she was a maybe widow (my father was missing in action) and raising nine children in wartime Saigon. I have witnessed how her present was so opposite from her expectations, and yet, she kept living. She figured out how to feed us, how to educate us, and how to get us out of a Communist country and into a place where we would be left alone to thrive. She did all this without having been to college, without a career, and without knowing what life across the world had to offer. But she knew how to train her children’s minds. We were told to go out there, figure out what needed to be done, and do it.
I feel so lucky to know my mother. She found reasons to laugh when she could have whined. So for young readers, I say go look for people who do not whine. No matter what life throws at them, they find equilibrium again. The world is full of such people. They are usually quiet and not obviously shiny, but look deeper and you will find they are the ones worth knowing.
REAGAN: What books would you recommend to fans of your work? Are there books that inspired you when you were younger, especially when you were new to the country?
LAI: I had to look up just about every word when I started reading in English, so I didn’t get through that many books. I do remember loving anything with an animal: Charlotte’s Web, Call of the Wild, Where the Red Fern Grows. I thought I would grow up to be a naturalist.
Read, go to a library or bookstore, take your time, and browse. Open up any page of any book and read. If it interests you for whatever reason, bring it home and interact with the text slowly. There’s no rush. Take a month to read a book if you want. Any book at all: picture books, graphic novels, novels. There’s nothing you are supposed to read other than something that makes you pause and say, “Hmm.”
The trick isn’t reading; it’s finding that book that makes you want to read. For that to happen, you have to put in the time to interact with the choices in front of you. Reading starts when you run your fingers along the spines of books on the shelves. Be generous; allow hours to pass as you let your mind find something of interest.
REAGAN: Can you tell us a little bit about your nonprofit organization, Viet Kids?
LAI: Viet Kids gives bicycles to poor students so they can whoosh to school in half an hour instead of walking for two. I started it in 2005 after a trip to Vietnam where I met students in the countryside. When I asked them what they wanted most, I thought they would say a toy or clothes or a special meal or school supplies, but each asked for a bicycle. With one bike, life changes. A student can bike to school, often taking along a sibling. Because they are not exhausted from walking, they can concentrate on school work. Also, parents can transport vegetables and such to sell at the market. The whole family benefits.
Listen, Slowly readers now know about Viet Kids. Every few weeks, I get a donation notification in my e-mail. So I love checking my e-mail. More about Viet Kids can be found at thanhhalai.com.
REAGAN: What is next for you?
LAI: I am on deadline for a novel about a girl who accidentally gave away her brother at the end of the Vietnam War. Six years later, she has clawed her way to Texas, determined to find him. Helping her along the way is an American boy equally determined to become a cowboy.
It’s tough going. But I am in my chair six days a week. It’s awful and glorious all at once.
Inside Out and Back Again. 2011. Harper, $15.99 (9780061962783). Gr. 4–8.
Listen, Slowly. 2015. Harper, $16.99 (9780062229182). Gr. 4–8.
The following titles, both fiction and nonfiction, deal with immigration, child refugees, and the exploration of multicultural backgrounds, and make excellent teaching companions to Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly.
All the Broken Pieces. By Ann Burg. 2009. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780545080927).
This novel in verse focuses on 12-year-old Matt Pin, displaced from Vietnam at the end of the war and adopted by an American family. As he learns to adjust and finds success on the baseball field, he also deals with his memories of the war, survivor’s guilt, and the attitude many Americans had toward the Vietnamese.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings. By Margarita Engle. Illus. by Edel Rodriguez. 2015. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781481435222). Gr. 5–8.
Engle reflects on her Los Angeles and her Cuban heritage throughout this free verse memoir. She evocatively addresses weighty issues, such as her mother’s homesickness, being bicultural, the challenge of moving homes and schools, the Cuban Revolution, and negotiating an identity that is being torn apart by politics and social attitudes at complete odds with her feelings and experiences.
Half a World Away. By Cynthia Kadohata. 2014. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781442412750). Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old Jaden, abandoned by his mother when he was four and adopted from Romania when he was eight, is a textbook case of a troubled, older adopted child. Now his American parents are taking him along as they fly half a world away to Kazakhstan, where they plan to adopt a baby. But what happens when Jaden bonds not with the baby but with a special needs child at the adoption facility?
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. By Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick. 2014. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316327930).
This young reader’s edition of Yousafzai’s 2013 memoir details the then-17-year-old’s experiences as an advocate for education in Pakistan—especially for women—both before and after she became a target of the Taliban. Although her efforts to attend school, and the subsequent attack she endured, make for a powerful story, Yousafzai writes just as vividly about her daily life as a child in Pakistan and, later, the adjustments she had to make when moving to America.
Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan. By John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech. 2010. illus. National Geographic, $15.95 (9781426307089). Gr. 7–12.
Dau, whose memoir, God Grew Tired of Us (2007), targeted adults, turns to a younger audience, with added perspective from his wife, Akech. In alternating narratives, John and Martha, who are both Christian Dinkas from Southern Sudan, describe wrenching separation from their families; witnessing mass slaughter; trekking through jungles, deserts, and bush; and reaching UN refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where each lived for many years before arriving in the U.S.
The Red Pencil. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2014. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316247801). Gr. 4–8.
In short verse, Amira, almost 12, dreams of school, but that is not the traditional way for girls living a hard life in Sudan. Then the Janjaweed arrive and decimate the village in an attack that kills her father. After the remaining family members relocate to a refugee camp, Amira’s spirit is sorely tested, but the gift of a pad and a red pencil restores her sense of agency and offers the promise of learning.
The Turn of the Tide. By Rosanne Parry. 2016. Random, $16.99 (9780375869723). Gr. 4–7.
When a tsunami devastates his home in Japan, Kai, burdened with guilt after failing to save his grandparents, is sent to live in Oregon with his cousin Jet. Jet, who aspires to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a ship’s pilot, had ignored the tsunami warnings in her haste to go sailing, and hit wreckage that damaged her boat. As she wrestles with her shame over her irresponsibility, Kai tries to acclimate to a different culture and struggles to master his fear of the water, and the two join forces to compete in a boat race.
The Weight of Water. By Sarah Crossan. 2013. Bloomsbury, $15.99 (9781599909677). Gr. 5–8.
In this emotional novel in verse, 12-year-old Kasienka emigrates from Poland to Coventry, England, to search for her missing father. Kasienka has a difficult transition as she and her mother move into a crumbling studio apartment, she is unfairly bumped down to sixth grade because of her broken English, and she is teased by the girls at school for being different. While her mother searches door-to-door each evening for her missing husband, Kasienka finds refuge in swimming.
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe