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!

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Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

“‘I guess you’ll never become a samurai now, huh, Manjiro-chan?’

‘Why not?’ Manjiro asked.

‘Even if we should get home, you know very well you can’t be.  You weren’t born into a samurai family.  You were born a fisherman’s son, and you will be a fisherman, and any sons you have, they will also be fishermen.  That is the way it is; that is the way it always has been; that is the way it will always be.'”

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro wants to be a samurai, but in nineteenth-century Japan, there is no changing one’s family job.  Fishing is his destiny, even if he wishes for more.  However, when Manjiro and his fishing mates are stranded on a deserted island, and then picked up by a whaling ship, he finds more adventure than he could have imagined.  There is a great price, though:  even though he will travel the seas and live in America, he will never be able to return home.  The custom in Japan at the time was to remain completely isolated; no foreigners are admitted, and citizens who leave may never come back.  Though Manjiro has ten years of adventures, including panning for gold, learning to make barrels, horse racing with his classmates, and living with his adoptive family,  he simply longs to return to his home and his blood family.  Will he ever find his way home again?

This Newbery Honor book has the distinction of being based on a true story: there was a real Manjiro, who was really picked up by the John Howland, an American whaling ship.  According to Margi Preus, Manjiro was the first know person of Japanese heritage to reach America!  Included in this book are actual sketches of his, and some real words from his diaries.  I enjoyed the factual aspects of the story, especially such an intriguing and unusual one.  Younger readers will appreciate the beautiful black and white illustrations, and the detailed historical notes, glossary, and explanations of the Japanese calender and time systems will please teachers.  This book seems made for the classroom!

Happy Reading!

Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai. Amulet Books: New York, 2010. 301 pp. Ages 10-14.

I’m sorry, the author’s website does not seem to be up and running right now! I’ll keep checking and bring you the link when it is.

If you liked this book, more great historical fiction awaits! Try One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm, or Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

“When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child.  His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

‘Don’t fix that one,’ said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. ‘It’s a Matteo Alacran.  They’re always left intact.'”

Matteo is a clone, formed from human DNA and raised in the womb of a cow.  Unlike other clones, though, his intelligence is not surgically limited: for a clone, he’s very fortunate, enjoying all the privileges of a real human, such as an education.  This is because he’s the special clone of El Patron, the ancient lord of the country Opium.  Opium lies between the United States and the former country of Mexico: a vast tract of poppies, eejits (computer-chipped slaves who work the fields), a set of terrifying bodyguards, and the powerful family of El Patron.

Clones, as Matteo slowly learns, are considered sub-human, monstrous, and only good for one thing: growing transplantable organs.  As El Patron’s body ages and begins to deteriorate, Matteo’s organs will be harvested, and given to El Patron.  This process has been repeated many times in the past, allowing El Patron to reach the age of 148.  If Matt wants to live past his preteen years, he’s got to escape.  Furthermore, if there is any hope for justice for the thousand of enslaved eejit workers, who are all captured illegal immigrants, Matt must face the sinister system that brought him into existence.

This near-future science fiction deals with issues of illegal immigration, drug empires, cloning, and what constitutes being a human.  The action builds steadily, and spans various settings and many years, but never feels drawn-out or stretched.  Nancy Farmer is also a genius at creating seemingly-impossible-to-escape situations, and then magically unraveling them with a plausible, but unexpected solution.  Especially appealing for me is Matt’s gradual realization of the implications of being a clone: readers watch him develop a full consciousness of his identity throughout the book.  This is great writing, friends!

I should mention that Farmer has already written two other Newbery Honor books, and they are also incredible.  When I was ten, my best friend handed me her copy of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, also written by Farmer.  It’s one of those books I remember with startling clarity, because it shocked my childish brain, which until that point was only accustomed to the Bobbsey Twins  and The Baby-sitters Club series, or perhaps the occasional abridged classic.  (Does anyone remember the illustrated and abridged Hound of the Baskervilles?)  Anyway, that was an amazing book, and this one is too!  It won the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Printz Honor, and it is an ALA Best Book, too!  The front cover sparkles with all the medals, and the text inside will blow your mind.

Happy Reading!

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

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.  380 pp.  Ages 11 and up.