The first thing you’ll want to know about this book—for better or worse—is that it is a novella in poem form. Of course, even if you don’t know it, you’ll notice it the second you open the book. A pleasant free verse type of poetry, it is a painless way to introduce poetry into a child’s life. Some kids are going to find Inside Out and Back Again harder to understand than the usual novel, but I think it’s worth the try.
Written by a Vietnam War refugee—Thanhha Lai–the book is based on her own journey from Vietnam to America and her first year in the South. Supposedly, the book was written in free verse because it sounds more like Vietnamese. Also, Lai wrote a novel instead of her own memoir in order to avoid the sticky situations that arise with memoirs. At the end of the day, the book took home a number of awards (National Book Award and Newbery) and is a New York Times bestseller. It is also destined to be required reading for many American children in the upper-el, junior high category.
Not my son’s favorite book, he nonetheless liked it enough not to complain about the poetry. Normally excellent at comprehension, there were times when he missed something because of the language or when he had to ask a question because of the history. The book would couple well with a unit on free verse poetry and one on the Vietnam War. As a homeschool mom, I’m always on the lookout for stuff like this (though it’s too late for us on this one). In hindsight, this book would be great to read during history of the modern era, when one arrives in the 60s (along with the next book I’m going to review, One Crazy Summer).
Would you read this book just to enjoy it, though? While I believe it is best as a pleasant history lesson, I think you could read it for enjoyment, especially if you are a kid who happens to enjoy poetry. I was that kid, and I think I would have liked this book largely for the word choices and how the main character feels about her new language. (English really does hiss a lot, doesn’t it?) The reader does develop questions which they want answered, but the timing of the book is not plot-driven, exactly. In other words, your questions get answered and the book goes on to the next thing. You keep reading because you’re interested in the history or you are enjoying the reading in and of itself. Somehow, the subject matter–while very heavy when you parse it out: war, emigration, racism, death of a parent, poverty, etc.–feels bearable, even light, in this telling. I suppose you could be interested in the characters, but because of the free verse style, there are not so many words in this book, and the characters are more sketches than detailed characters.
Speaking of brevity, some people could read this book in an afternoon. The word count is a mere 22,000 words (which the internet estimates the average reader will read in under 6 hours).
I do recommend this book, especially for 4th-6th graders studying modern history. There’s plenty here both to enjoy and to digest. Go buy a papaya, cut it up, and dig in.