Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a poignant, touching story of loss, war, conflict, coming of age, and hope. Há Ma is just a young girl when her family flees their beloved home country during the Fall of Saigon. They leave behind everything they know and love, including Father, for the hope of safety and stability. They endure endless days on a ship with little food, waiting for someone to arrive and rescue them. Eventually, Há and her family end up with an American sponsor from Alabama and they move to a new country.
Told in verse, this coming-of-age story will leave the reader breathless with both its powerful imagery and captivating story. Há’s story brings new light to the reader’s understanding of immigration and how children process the trauma of leaving a home country and entering a new culture. The possibilities for this book in the classroom are numerous, thanks to the richness and depth of Thannha Lai’s story.
Important Quotations Topics for Discussion
- “Every new year Mother visits / the I Ching Teller of Fate. / This year he predicts / our lives will twist inside out /…… The war is coming / closer to home.” (page 4)
- “Some verbs / switch all over / just because. /…. Would be simpler / if English / and life / were logical.” (page 135)
- “Wishes /….. Mostly / I wish / I were / still / smart.” (page 159)
- “But Not Bad Mother slaps my hand / Learn to compromise” (page 233)
- “Our lives / will twist and twist, / intermingling the old and the new / until it doesn’t matter / which is which.” (page 257)
Discussion Topics and Questions
- Poetry. Why do you think the author decided to tell the story in poems instead of a prose narrative format? How do you think the story is different because it is told in verse? Why do some poems have dates while others are dated “every day”?
- Refugees. Há and her family leave Vietnam very quickly. What emotions do you think they are feeling during this time? Why does Há bring her doll as her one item from home? Do you have one time that you would select if you had to leave your home forever?
- Vietnam and Albama. How are the two places different? What is Há’s life like in Saigon? What is it like in Alabama? Do you think there are any similarities?
- Learning English. Há says at one point that there are too many rules in English. Why do you think that learning English is frustrating for her? Aside from the rules, are there other reasons that make it difficult to learn English? Why do you think Mrs. Washington decides to help Há? What kind of person is Mrs. Washington? How do you learn about her character and what type of person she is?
- Bullying and friendship. Há experiences many difficulties in her new school in Alabama. How do the other students respond to Há and her siblings? What do you think are the reasons for their actions? How does Ha respond? How does Há grow and change as a character?
- Understanding Vietnam. Há wants people to understand her beloved home country. Why does she want them to know her country? What does she want them to learn about? How does she feel about her teacher, Miss Scott, showing pictures of war in Vietnam? What kind of pictures does Há want people to see and discuss? Why?
- Family. Há and her family wish for the return of father. How does the family find resolution?
Text Set to Accompany Teaching of Inside Out and Back Again
The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland This story provides for many text-to-text connections with Há’s story in Inside Out. Garland’s story begins with the last emperor of Vietnam, and a woman who takes a lotus seed with her from the emperor’s garden on the day that he abdicated the throne. The country is then torn apart by war, first with the French and then a civil war. The woman, Bá, leaves her beloved country on a ship with other refugees, landing in a strange new land. She and her family work for years. One day, her grandson takes her precious lotus seed and plants it, as he has never seen a lotus flower. Bá cries, but the following spring, a beautiful pink lotus appears, “the flower of life and hope….the flower of my country.” The story is powerful and hopeful, while the illustrations that capture the beauty of Vietnam and the lotus flower. The author’s note gives a brief overview of the historical background for the story.
The Wall by Eve Bunting A boy and his father visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and search for the grandfather’s name among the thousands of names inscribed on the wall. The boy and his father find the name and create a rubbing of the name George Munoz on paper. The story is simple but powerful, evoking the strength and honor of the Vietnam wall with all of the names honoring the soldiers who lost their lives. The final note on the last page gives readers a few details about the wall, along with the information that names are still being added to the wall as those who were “missing in action” are identified. This book will introduce the reader to the Vietnam memorial and honor all of the Americans who fought in Vietnam.
Always With You by Ruth Vander Zee A picture book with poignant illustrations and a moving, heartbreaking tale of a girl in South Vietnam. Young Kim is only four years old when her mother is killed when their village is bombed. Kim’s mother tells her “I will always be with you.” Kim is found by American soldiers who take her to an orphanage, where she lives for five years before traveling to the US for eye surgery. Based on a true events, this picture book brings to life the story of one young girl, but also the story of the many orphans in Vietnam, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, during the Vietnam War. The author’s note also provides more background for students.
Voices Compassion Education: Vietnamese Poetry This website contains a great number of resources, including photos, poetry, and non-fiction that could be used with a text set on the Vietnam War.
- Poetry. Take a story from your own family and create a poem. Use specific images and select your words carefully. Notice how Thannha Lai uses emphasis with specific words and images. Think about how you want to arrange the words to tell your story and what you want the reader to notice and think about.
- Photos of Vietnam. Using a variety of pictures from Vietnam, respond to the photos as Ha might respond. Write about the photos from Há’s point of view. What is important about each photo? Why? (Teachers may want to use images described in “War and Peace” poem.)
- Journal. Create journal entries from important events in Há’s life. What moments might she want to write about in a journal? Tell her stories with many details and use dialogue.
- Think about the most important poem in Inside Out & Back Again. (Remember there is not just one “right” answer!) Why do you think this poem is the most important? How does it help the reader understand Há’s story?
Have you read Inside Out & Back Again? Please share your thoughts!