Book Review: 'Inside Out and Back Again'

Filed under: Books for Kids

Rated ON for Ages 10 and Up

What Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this book is written in a series of short verse poems, which are easy to read, fast-paced, descriptive and poignant. Though it is never preachy or instructional, the short verse poems give much information about life in Vietnam, including the foods, clothing, traditions, the encroaching war, some politics, family structure and more. Readers will also learn about life as an immigrant as Ha struggles with a new language, eating new foods, meeting new kids, deals with attitudes towards Vietnamese immigrants -- and tries to blend Vietnamese customs with new American ones. While the main character is a 10-year-old girl, this story is suitable for boys and readers in a wide age range. Parents should know that this story is filled with beauty and hope, even though its backdrop is the Vietnam war and immigration.

The good stuff

  • Educational value: Though it is never preachy or instructional, the short verse poems give much information about life in Vietnam, including the foods, clothing, traditions, the encroaching war, some politics, family structure and more. Readers will also learn about life as an immigrant as Ha struggles with a new language, eating new foods, meeting new kids, deals with attitudes towards Vietnamese immigrants -- and tries to blend Vietnamese customs with new American ones.
  • Messages: This is an immigrant story -- with the Vietnam war as the backdrop -- but it is also a story of a family's resiliency and hope in a new land.
  • Role models: While Ha can be feisty and impatient, she is honest, caring, thoughtful, devoted to her family and very brave. Ha's mother is raising four kids as a single parent and she does so with vision, kindness, and strength, even though she has private moments of weakness. Ha's older brothers tease her, yet each of them also protect her and contribute to taking care of the family.

What to watch out for

  • Violence: A boy at school teases Ha. He pokes her in the face and chest and pulls her arm hair. He follows her after school and threatens to beat her up.
  • Sex: Not an issue.
  • Language: The same bully calls Ha names and derides her with ethnic jokes, calling her Pancake Face.
  • Consumerism: Not an issue.
  • Drinking, drugs, and smoking: Not an issue.
Book Summary

The story is told through short free-verse poems, and takes place over the course of one year: In 1975, 10-year-old Ha and her family must leave Vietnam as the Communists take over her home city of Saigon. After secretly departing by ship and staying in two temporary refugee camps, Ha's family finally lands in Alabama with a sponsor family. There, they must learn a new language, go to school, find work, make friends, deal with bullies and suspicion -- and figure out how to become Americans. They must also say a symbolic and definitive goodbye to Ha's father, who was missing in action for 10 years. Readers follow Ha's feisty and honest journey as she navigates her family's immigration from Vietnam, heeds her mother's kind wisdom, deals with her older brothers (and benefits by their protection), meets bullies and kind strangers, and begins to believe in herself again.

Is It Any Good?

"Inside Out and Back Again" is a memorable story, told beautifully in free verse poetry. The poetry makes Ha's story easy to read and allows readers to fully experience a wide range of situations and emotions without being overwhelmed. Tweens will like the fast pace and Ha's childlike but authentic voice, and parents will appreciate the quality of the characters and opportunity to discuss values, culture, and choices. This story is filled with wisdom (Ha's mother warns her to "be surprised," "be agreeable," and "learn to compromise,") as well as humor (when Ha's mother says to her, "You love to argue, right?" she replies, "No, I don't.") While the Vietnam war and relocation are the backdrop to this story, the narration is free from judgment and politics. The story is good for boys and girls in a wide age range, and it also lends itself well to a read-aloud experience. Overall, this is an inspiring story that can be read multiple times, each time providing readers with a deeper appreciation for the writing itself, the characters, and the poignant but subtle life lessons.

This review of "Inside Out and Back Again" was written by Kristen Breck.

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