Inside Out & Back Again

By Thanhha Lai

Current & Digital Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins)

Reading Level: Ages 8 & Up

Eliot Schrefer writes: 

Man, talk about economy of expression. The pages of Inside Out & Back Again just fly by (a big plus, especially with younger readers), but the amount of beauty and emotional truth Thanhha Lai is able to pack into her sparing words is astounding. The story of Hà, a girl who flees Vietnam with her family to come to the United States, really is precisely about turning inside-out (I’m even jealous of this book’s title!). Hà goes from being a wealthy star of the classroom in Vietnam to a social outcast in Alabama, only slowly gaining her confidence back by the book’s end. By avoiding the technical details of Vietnam and America’s political situations and instead focusing on Hà’s emotional experience, Lai makes this novel very accessible and timeless. From cradling a crushed chick to enduring sustained bullying, Hà’s experience will make readers (wherever they live) easily relate to the feeling of being an outcast.

I think what I might love most about this novel is Lai’s skill at endings. Inside Out & Back Again is a sequence of poems that often end on an image or observation all the more devastating for its understated-ness. My favorite poem might be “First Rule”:

Brother Quang says
add an s to nouns
to mean more than one
even if there’s
already an s
sitting there.


All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth.

Whoever invented
must have loved

We get a sense of so much in these few words: the respect Hà has for her brother; the academic, reasoning mind she brings to learning a new language; the dedication of her language practice (which we will soon see hasn’t paid off as much as she hoped); the difficulty of English rules, intuitive to the reader but not to Hà. But I most love that closing. At the behest of her mother, Hà’s forcing herself to be open to learning how to function in this new world, but that means spending her whole day trying to make words and thinking about how the inventors of this new language world must have loved snakes. There’s so much subliminal aggression and hostility she’s feeling—or not yet allowing herself to feel—from and towards the unfriendly Americans around her.

My first exposure to Inside Out & Back Again was Thanhha Lai’s reading for the National Book Awards, and my reading experience was shaded by her delivery. She brought a constant smile and a sense of whimsy, which only reinforces the wry humor thrumming underneath the book. Gorgeous, funny, poignant—this is one excellent novel.

Thanhha Lai reading at the National Book Award Finalists Reading in 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkjwu2WEIA

Eliot Schrefer is the author of Endangered, a 2012 National Book Award Finalist, Glamorous Disasters, and other novels. The winner of the 2013 Green Earth Book Award, Schrefer is a contributor to The Huffington Post and a reviewer for USA Today. He has been profiled in Newsweek, New York magazine, and WWD, among other publications. He lives in New York City.


Image below by Hannah Quirk of Tompkins Square Middle School:


Image created by Hannah Quirk of Tompkins Square Middle School.


YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Franny Billingsley for Chime
  • Debby Dahl Edwardson for My Name Is Not Easy
  • Albert Marrin for Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
  • Gary D. Schmidt for Okay for Now

YPL Winner That Year: Thanhha Lai for Inside Out & Back Again

Judges That Year: Marc Aronson, Ann Brashares, Matt de la Peña, Nikki Grimes, Will Weaver

The Year in Literature:  Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery Medal. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Printz Award.

More Information: Inside Out & Back Again came to Lai “out of nowhere” after she decided to take a break from another novel she had been working on for fifteen years.

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