Jennifer Pickrell

YA Writer

#MiddleGradeMay: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai


mmg-may-reading-challenge(photo and description from Goodreads)Inside Out and Back Again cover

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by… and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape… and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

When I saw this book was written as a series of poems, I thought “eh,” because I didn’t know how well that would work. I’m glad I ignored myself because it was a beautiful, moving story. Through snippets, I got to know Hà, her mother and her older brothers.

I liked that she was headstrong and a little impulsive – the book begins with Vietnamese New Year and her personality really shines through in this passage (pages 2-3):

But last night I pouted

when Mother insisted

one of my brothers

must rise first

this morning

to bless our house

because only male feet

can bring luck.

An old, angry knot

Expanded in my throat.

I decided

to wake before dawn

and tap my big toe

to the tile floor


Hà never comes right out and says how bad things are, mostly because she’s not old enough to truly understand, but there are little details sprinkled throughout, especially this passage on page 47:

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


in Mother’s

deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up

where you don’t worry about

saving half a bite

of sweet potato.

The book is split into sections:

Part 1: Saigon

It shows the day-to-day and deteriorating conditions, as well as the confusion of planning to escape.

Part 2: At Sea

While the journey was rough on all of them, I think it was especially on Hà’s brother, Khôi, who was very sensitive.  There’s something he does, involving what he brought from home, that’s heartbreaking.

Part 3: Alabama

Hà’s assumptions about Americans made me smile, especially the idea that the men were all cowboys. There’s a great scene on pages 131-134 where she’s trying to ask her family’s sponsor if she can ride the horse she assumes he owns.

Part 4: From Now On

In some ways, this was the most moving part because the family is finally accepting that this is now their life. They begin to move on and make plans.

Definitely, definitely check this book out – it’s a quick read, packed with so much emotion.


Author: Jennifer Pickrell

I write YA contemporary filled w/ romance, angst & family drama. Things I like: cats, snacks, baseball, green tea, taking pictures of trees & movies so bad, they’re good.

14 thoughts on “#MiddleGradeMay: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  1. Yes yes and yes on everything you say about this book. One of my favorites so glad we can give it a #middlegrademay shout out!

  2. I still need to read this book. It must be fantastic if two of you are featuring it today (you and Gina Carey)!

  3. Haven’t read this one, but it sounds great! Thanks for the review.

  4. I loved this book. I, too, was skeptical because it was in verse but I’m so happy I decided to go for it.

  5. I read this a year or two ago and loved it.

  6. Ooooh this sounds really great!

  7. This sounds REALLY like my style. i will definitely check this one out. I am from a small town in the deep south and I used to feel for people from far away who ended up there. It certainly wasn’t the America from TV shows.

    • I think there’s still a sense of America (and a lot of places) being a certain way b/c of TV – I’ve got this ideal in my head of places overseas I’ve never visited (like Ireland) that I’m sure are slightly skewed 🙂

  8. Pingback: YA Buccaneers Reading Challenge Wrap Up | Jennifer Pickrell

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