Five Reasons to Read It #11: INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN

I’m reading everything through a teacher-reader lens these days, since class will be in session on Wednesday.  Here’s another book that cries out to be included in any elementary or middle-school library. 
HarperCollins, 2011

Five reasons to read it (and make sure it’s in your school library):

1.  It’s the story of a young refugee and her family that makes Vietnam, 1975 feel like home, and renders the United States (Alabama specifically) a land of strange customs and bizarre food (Hà’s first disdainful interaction with a hot dog is great).  This is an excellent book for social studies teachers to refer kids to if they are discussing the war in Vietnam, because it offers up a sample of everyday life for a regular Vietnamese kid at that time, which will help to balance out the mental picture that students create of that country. 

2. It’s a novel in verse, and the narrative poetry here is beautiful.  The papaya can be tasted, the seasickness can be felt.  The poetry is accessible, as well.  No words are wasted, and Lai’s use of exact, sparing language makes Hà’s emotional journey tense and affecting.

3.  The protagonist suffers in this book – of grief for a father who is M.I.A., of wretched discomfort on a refugee ship, of feeling out of place and being bullied upon reaching Alabama.  Yet there is lightness and heart throughout this book. Hà is a funny, often disgruntled young girl – a victim of circumstance, unhampered by victim mentality.

4. Hà goes from feeling like an intelligent student in Vietnam to feeling like a stupid one in Alabama.  As she wrestles with speaking a new language, both her academic and her social confidence are sapped. For those of us who have never had to adapt to a new language or culture, it is important to be exposed to the stories of those who have.  For teachers in particular, this book is a great reminder of how frustrated and isolated our English-language learners can feel, as they transition into expressing themselves in a totally new format.  Hà makes this frustration palpable.

5. Lai laces her English verse with bits of Vietnamese language.  Not only does this make Hà’s journey and point of view feel authentic, it also gives the book the power to connect deeply with students who also speak both English and Vietnamese, and who may feel, in some sense, that this book is theirs.  Example: I posted a photo of some of my “to-read” books on my Twitter feed, and this title was in the stack.  One of my Vietnamese students tweeted back, “You’re reading the Inside Out book with all the Viet words in it!” Lai’s book must really mean something to her, if she’s that excited to see her teacher reading it.  I’m looking forward to seeing that particular student next week and to asking her how to pronounce everything.  Any book that helps me make a personal connection with one of my students?  Priceless. 

1 Comment

  1. How lovely that this book connected you with one of your students. It’s obvious she’s excited to think that you’ll be catching a glimpse of her culture. Enjoy! 🙂

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