I adored this book (obviously). So here are the 10 Things I Loved About Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:
- The format - the book is told in free verse poems. The light lyricism doesn't feel forced and gives a really good picture of Há's state of mind and her personality.
- Cultural Details - I love that things aren't dumbed down or "American-ized" and here's what I mean by that - the characters' names maintain their cultural spelling. Words are used that middle grade students (much less many adults) might not be familiar with. Lai assumes her readers will be able to make sense of it in the context. And I appreciate that she has this faith in her readers, particularly since it is geared toward "Down Unders" to steal my sister's term :)
- Há's description of papayas - I'm not a fan of papayas and I wanted to try some of hers. It also created this really interesting image that Há clung to that came to mean so much more than just the fruit itself.
- The realism - while the poetic form of the story keeps the tone light-ish, Lai doesn't shy away from the challenges Há and her family face both in Korea and in the United States. There is real tragedy and heartbreak in their lives and Há really has to struggle to deal with it. And, while there is a hopeful ending, everything isn't just happily ever after.
- The lightness - I loved that even in the midst of some of the terrible things going on, Há doesn't lose her sense of humor. She's not laughing at everything (in fact, there's the sense that she doesn't laugh very much), but she is trying very hard not to let herself get beaten down in the midst of challenging and bewildering situations.
- Spotlight on bullying - Within the larger narrative of someone being transplanted to a new culture and country, Lai also draws bullying into sharp focus. There are different levels of it aimed at Há and her family, but Lai doesn't make excuses for anyone. She draws a picture of the anxiety and confusion Há feels - everything from being laughed at for her clothes to the more serious physical danger she feels from a group of boys.
- Not everything is big - Even though Há is going through these larger trials, she's still a ten-year-old girl. She has questions and anxieties about little things. She feels guilty for "little" sins in her past and has to confess to her mother. She dislikes certain foods and worries about her friendships.
- Há's misconceptions about America - particularly her misconceptions about "cowboys" - There are so many stereotypes about Americans and Há gets confused about what is real and what is just story, sometimes with quite humorous perspectives on her part.
- Misses Washington - I wanted to hug her. Her kindnesses and generosity to Há's family were so special to the story.
- Há's struggle to learn English - I was laughing out loud at these passages. English is such a bizarre language and Lai captures the absurdity in perfect ten-year-old perspective. Here's an example:
"Sometimes the spelling changes when adding as s.
Knife becomes knives.
a c is used
instead of a k,
it makes more sense
for cat to be spelled kat.
a y is used
instead of an e,
it makes more sense
for moldy to be spelled molde.
Whoever invented English
should have learned