JOPLIN, Mo. —
In "Inside Out & Back Again" by Thanhha Lai, 10-year-old Ha does not want to leave Vietnam. But in 1975, when the war reaches Saigon, she and her family have little choice but to board a ship and flee their homeland.
Once on the ship, they wait more than a month to be rescued, and when they finally are, they are taken to a refugee camp on the island of Guam. From there Ha's mother chooses to relocate the family to the United States because she believes it holds the most opportunities for her children, and they reside in a camp in Florida until a man from Alabama agrees to sponsor them.
Once in Alabama, they live with "the Cowboy," as Ha affectionately nicknames their sponsor, until he generously finds them a place of their own. Soon, Ha's oldest brother is working as a mechanic, and she and her two other brothers are enrolled in school.
School proves difficult for Ha, not only because she does not speak English but because her classmates make fun or her and treat her differently based solely on her appearance. Thankfully, one of the neighbors -- who is a retired school teacher -- welcomes Ha and her family to their new neighborhood and begins tutoring Ha privately.
Eventually, she makes two friends in her class, and things become a little easier for her, though she still has many challenges to overcome.
When I first picked up this title in 2011, it had just been published, so I had little way of knowing it would gain such accolades as becoming a New York Times bestseller, scoring a Newbery Honor Medal and winning the National Book Award. But in hindsight, it is easy to see how this coming-of-age story stole the hearts of so many.
Not only does debut author Lai perfectly capture Ha's voice and emotions, but she draws on her childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama to craft a tale that appeals not only to immigrants and refugees but any child who has been bullied or made to feel like an outsider. Written in a beautiful prose format, readers will devour this short, touching novel.
Jeane Gockley is children's librarian for the Joplin Public Library.