Thanhha Lai won a Newbery Honor for Inside Out and Back Again, her verse novel based on her family’s harrowing escape from Vietnam at the end of the war.
I expected the book to be sad, beautiful, moving.
What I didn’t expect was for it to be funny. And it is, very funny, mostly in our protagonist, Ha’s response to the strangeness of American school, kids the language, food and so on. The humour adds to the poignancy of the desperate and precarious nature of their escape and existence in America. The family’s much loved father is missing in action and never found. Their mother must survive in a foreign country with her many children, no English and utterly dependent on the kindness (or otherwise) of strangers.
Relevant to today’s world and the refugee situation and completely brilliant.
It took me longer to warm up to Listen, Slowly, but warm up I did. Mai starts off as a typical Western teen: spoiled, self-centred and stroppy with her father and mother who have volunteered her to accompany her grandmother or Ba back to Vietnam in an attempt to find out, after all these years, what happened to her grandfather during the war. Mia’s gradual softening towards her beloved grandmother and the country she originates from is well-mapped out, with plenty of light relief supplied by intestinal troubles, teen romance among her extended family, a new friend named Ut and a giant pet frog. Which makes the truth about Mai’s grandfather or Ong all the more more harrowing when we finally learn it. A great read.