Two things I usually do not like to read about: war and hot places. And yet I found myself picking up Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai everytime I walked past the New J Fiction shelf. I could tell by the description on the back of the book that the story was about a young girl living in South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon, thus, it was about war in a hot place. Yet, the praise on the back cover also demanded that I “read it slowly to savor the delicious language” and cheer on “a protagonist so strong, so loving, and vivid [that fellow author] longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya.” I asked myself one question: Have I ever eaten a papaya? I don’t think so, but after reading this book I am convinced that papaya is now my favorite fruit, and that Inside Out & Back Again has my vote for the Newbery Award this year.

This story, told in verse, spends one year with ten-year-old Hà as her family undergoes the transition from their war-torn, unsettled home in South Vietnam to the the unknown and sometimes cruel world of being refugees in the United States. Ha’s environment is something I have never experienced, but her spirit and humor remind me of many of my kindred fictional friends from Ramona Quimby to Allie Finkle. Thus, she enabled me to live a piece of our world’s history that, until now, had really only been presented to me through dry history books or masculine, heated war literature.

Hà’s story in heartbreaking, but not without hope and smiles. An excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:

Quiet Decision

Dinnertime
I help Mother
peel sweet potatoes
to stretch the rice.

I start to chop off
a potato’s end
as wide as
a thumbnail,
then decide
to slice off
only a sliver.

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
tears
in Mother’s
deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.

April 19