Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out

Every new year Mother visits

the I Ching Teller of Fate.

This year he predicts

our lives will twist inside out.

Maybe soldiers will no longer

patrol our neighborhood,

maybe I can jump rope

after dark,

maybe the whistles

that tell Mother

to push us under the bed

will stop screeching…

The war is coming closer to home.

Hà is a ten-year-old who lived in Vietnam with her mother and brothers before the war.  The soldiers took her father, and the bloodshed came closer and closer to their home and they were forced to flee. Saigon has fallen, and Hà and her family escape with thousands of others.  First a dark and smelly boat, then a refugee camp, and finally they have come to settle in Alabama.

Alabama isn’t so easy.  The other children pull her hair, having never seen anyone with such straight dark hair before.  The neighbors don’t want to be friends, either.  Everyone thinks they are too different for the small town.  Hà and her brothers struggle to learn English and fit in.  Their mother says they must not think of anything else, not their father or country or future, until they’ve mastered the language.  She says it’s the only way they will be able to have a happy life in their new home.  Though the adjustment is difficult for them all, they rely on each other, and begin the long process of healing from the wounds of the war.

This double award-winner (Newbery Honor finalist AND the National Book Award recipient) is written in verse, which has the dual benefits of addressing a traumatic subject in a way appropriate for younger audiences, and gives readers a sense of Hà’s struggles to master English.  This is a technique that has been used before in books like this, and works quite well-check out  It seems designed for a classroom read, and could be incorporated into lessons on verse novels, the Vietnam war, or units on cultural sensitivity and bullying.  I love the poem-diary format; it has the advantage of making readers feel like they are super-lightning fast because they can finish this book in a few hours!

This is a haunting introduction to the horrors of war, presented in a manageable format for younger readers-good for the classroom and sure to spark conversations on bullying and diversity.  Perhaps this is not a book that most young people would choose by themselves, for pleasure reading, but it would work well in a school setting.

Happy Reading!

Publisher’s website: http://www.harpercollins.ca/authors/36544/Thanhha_Lai/index.aspx

Lai, Thanhha.  Inside Out and Back Again. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.262 pp.  Ages 10-15.

If you liked this book, try Home of the Braveanother verse novel about refugees in the United States!

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

“Letters are opened and censored.  Informers are rewarded for snooping.  There are shortages of almost everything.  People stand in long lines.”

This is a graphic novel-picture book hybrid that tells the story of a little boy growing up in Prague, behind the Iron Curtain. His schoolmates did forced labor in the fields.  Art was censored.  It only took very little provocation to be questioned by the authorities.  He describes it as a difficult life, full of fear and empty of diversity.   There was no television when he was young, so he drew his own pictures.  He found refuge in painting the free and beautiful world he wanted, as well as in music.

The format is interesting: there are diary entries interspersed with descriptions of historical events and drawings of his life. I loved the black and white drawings, with only red accents: it’s a very striking visual representation of the sameness and culturally bare life he describes under communism.  When pop music begins to trickle in, the colors get more and more varied and vivid-a beautiful touch.

I loved the story; it was interesting and not something you read about very often.  This is a quick, informative text with a lot of creative art.  Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.petersis.com

Sis, Peter. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. New York: Frances Foster Books, 2007.   Ages 13 and up.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

“Gen, quick, take your mother! Hurry! You’ve got to take care of your mother! Your baby brother is still in your mama’s belly…you can’t die! You’ve got to survive!”

This graphic novel is the first in a ten-volume series, and it is an autobiographical account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Yes, autobiographical.  This really happened to the author, when he was six years old.  At 8:15, the atomic bomb detonated above Hiroshima, and the only way he survived was because he was protected by a concrete retaining wall at school.  He lost his brother, sister, and father: the house crushed his brother, and his father and sister were trapped and burned to death.  At the time, his mother was eight months pregnant, and the shock sent her into labor.  Adding tragedy upon tragedy, his little sister never reached her first birthday: she died of malnutrition.

But I started with the end of the book first.  Before the bomb drops, we learn about Gen and his family: the brother who is sent away to the country to protect him from bombs, the other brother who enlisted in the army, Gen’s father, who believes the war is a senseless, needless tragedy, perpetuated at the hands of rich leaders who are willing to sacrifice everything, including the lives of their citizens.  Everyone is hungry; everyone is frightened.  Even amidst the fear, there are acts of generosity and kindness, though, and it contrasts with the horrors of war, portrayed through a child’s eyes.

I know that for American readers, it is sometimes easy to equate graphic novels with comic books, and therefore associate them with frivolous topics: superheroes and the like.  However, that’s not the case.  Keiji Nakazawa began cartooning his experiences during World War II as a way to heal, and recover from the years of terror, starvation, and death.  Upon seeing his creations, This series was translated into many languages by Project Gen, and the author has this to say about the project:

“Human beings are foolish.  Thanks to bigotry, religious fanaticism, and the greed of those who traffic in war, the Earth is never at peace, and the specter of nuclear war is never far away.  I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully.”

This is one book that I won’t be forgetting quickly.

Happy Reading!

Nakazawa, Keiji.  Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. Vol I.  San Francisco: Last Gap Books, 2004.  284 pp.  Ages 15 and up.