It’s rare that I read a book and immediately know how to recommend it to multiple readers. Whether it wins a Newbery or not (and it should get a silver medal at least), Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is one of those rare books.
Here are just the top six reasons to recommend this first novel about a young girl and her family fleeing their native Vietnam for Alabama during the Vietnam War:
1. It’s a novel in verse that is an easier-than-usual read for kids who have a hard time getting into books with big, uninterrupted blocks of type.
2. It’s about a war, so I can recommend it to my “we only read books about wars, weapons, or cars” library customers. (Wonder if I’m talking about sixth-grade boys? Well, you’re a good guesser.)
3. It’s a moving story written from an outsider’s perspective. “White hair on a pink boy. / Honey hair with orange ribbons on see-through skin. / Hair with barrettes in all colors on bronze head. / I’m the only/ straight black hair / on olive skin.”
4. And yet, it touches on universal experiences and themes, like classroom humiliation: “So this is / what dumb / feels like. / I hate, hate, hate it.”
5. It’s historical fiction, yet it’s also a real story. As the author says, “Much of what happened to Hà, the main character in Inside Out & Back Again, also happened to me.” While “historical fiction” is usually a turn-off, “real-life” is a draw. That, plus “really well-written,” should help build a waiting list for this one at my library once I put in my post-Newbery and Printz announcement book order in late January.
6. It’s the story of a journey. People like me, who get geeked out about immigration (my next book is Hope & Tears: Ellis Island Voices), will respond to the immigration story that lies at the heart of Inside Out & Back Again. History teachers will like it too. The reading teacher at my school, who annually pulls together a pile of “journey” books for seventh graders to read, will be thrilled to have this story to add.
So will any reader who’s ever traveled far.