Inside Out & Back Again


  • Title: Inside Out & Back Again
  • Author: Thanhhà Lai
  • Illustrator: None
  • Awards: Newbery Honor, National Book Award


A refugee herself, Thanhhà Lai was born in Vietnam and fled the war with her mother and older brothers when she was ten years old.  Leaving her father behind as a prisoner, not knowing if he was alive or dead, she and her family bravely faced their new home: Alabama state in the United States of America.  Allowed entry into the United States after a host family selected them, they were shocked by the abrasive and foreign culture that was their new home.

Left with the striking memories of this experience, Lai wrote her debut novel: Inside Out & Back Again, which is semi-autobiographical.  When asked why she chose to not to write it as a complete autobiography, Lai responded, “I’m incapable of telling the truth.  Somewhere, somehow, I always tend to embellish any memory, so I thought it was safe and best to tell my story as fiction with my real shadow hovering over the manuscript.”  Walking the line between fiction and nonfiction with the grace of a tightrope walker, Lai has created two novels (Listen, Slowly being the other novel) that celebrate Vietnamese culture and the families that were forced to leave it behind.

Check out this video of Lai reading an excerpt from Inside Out and Back Again at the 2011 National Book Award Finalists Reading:


An independent, sassy protagonist, Hà is ten years old and facing the war torn life she has in Saigon with bravery and tenacity.  Her father gone for nine of her ten years as a prisoner of war and food becoming scarce in their area, Hà still goes to school for half of the day and on Saturdays, does chores at home, and helps with the grocery shopping (even getting a bit less food for her family so she could have a few bites of her favorite snacks).  In many ways, Hà is a typical child surrounded by the extraordinary circumstances of war.

Told in free verse, Inside Out & Back Again is Hà’s journal, chronically her thoughts and experiences.  A subtle but thoughtful character development are the pages that are marked not with a date, but with “Everyday,” revealing what Hà would like to do, say, feel, or be for all of her days.

“Mother tells me,
They tease you
because they adore you.

She’s wrong,
but I still love
being near her, even more than I love
my papaya tree.
I will offer her its first fruit.

Every Day” (6-7).

As the war draws closer to Saigon, Hà and her family flee their last remaining connection to her imprisoned father by packing carefully selected pieces and running for the boats.  A long, arduous journey ensues as they face food and water scarcity, a lack of privacy or bathrooms, and life on a boat.  They are still at sea when they discover that South Vietnam no longer exists.  The reactions of some of the passengers reveals the identity and deep national pride the people have for the homeland: “One woman tries to throw/herself overboard,/screaming that without a country/she cannot live./As they wrestle her down,/a man stops his heart/with a toothbrush.  

After weeks spent on the boat, they are rescued by an American boat who transports them to Guam.  While in Guam, waiting to decide where they will move next, they are taught English, watch North American movies, and experience canned food.  

“We eat inside a huge tent
where Brother Vũ
becomes head chef,
heating up cans of
beef and potatoes
tasting like salty vomit” (96).

Ultimately, Hà’s mother decides to bring her family to the United States when she hears that they will be able to go to college and there will be scholarships to help assist them.  Spending time in a refugee tent camp in Florida, they wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Realizing that changing the paperwork to show that they are Christian, Hà’s mother quickly their faith, “saying all beliefs/are pretty much the same” (108).

Meeting their host family, a kind man with a sour wife, and learning they are moving to Alabama, their mom quickly states that they all need to focus on learning English.  While living in the basement of their host family’s home (lest the neighbors see them), they focus on language and one another.

Until you children
master English,
you must think, do, wish
for nothing else.
Not your father,
not our old home,
not your old friends,
not our future
” (117).

Their family connection is not broken during the next year as they face bullying at school, bricks thrown through their windows, and the extreme isolation that only those who are dropped into a foreign land, culture, and language can ever fully understand.  Bright spots are found in the kindly neighbor of their new house who teaches Hà the nuances of the English language.

Hà’s big brothers look out for her by giving her rides to and from school, keeping her away from bullies who want to attack her not only for her differences but also because she has shown that her differences in no way impede her smarts as she successfully answers questions they can’t.  After staying in the teacher’s room for lunch (again, to avoid the bullies), Hà meets two new friends who embrace her for her differences and help find commonalities as well.

This is a moving story of bravery, kindness, cruelty, racism, and love of family, home, and country.

“I think and think
then close my eyes again.
This year I hope
I truly learn
to fly-kick,
not to kick anyone
so much as to fly” (260).


  • Historical Fiction
  • Poetry


Lai’s use of free verse poetry to accentuate the sharp wit of Hà was a perfect fit.  Figurative language abounds in the novel:

Similes ~

“A seed like
a fish eye,
black” (8).

Imagery ~

“Two green thumbs
that will grow into
orange-yellow delights
smelling of summer.

Middle sweet
between a mango and a pear.

Soft as a yam
gliding down
after three easy,
thrilling chews” (21).

Repetition ~

“Our ship creeps along
the river route
without lights
without cooking
without bathrooms” (73).

Lists ~

“All the while
surging from my gut:
shame” (208).

These are just the tip of the language iceberg Lai has crafted!


In a sixth grade classroom, Inside Out & Back Again would be a wonderful literacy and writing mentor text.  The vocabulary, pace, and storyline are all accessible for sixth graders, but the free verse style would provide a challenge for them as readers; pairing it with nonfiction or short stories would be an easy way to scaffold up the reading level.  Being able to study the figurative language and free verse structure opens the door to so many powerful writing opportunities.  Additionally, the celebration of Vietnamese culture seamlessly opens the door for multicultural studies.


Helping students explore cultures is one of the greatest gifts of teaching: you literally get to see their world expand before your eyes!  Inside Out & Back Again allows the reader to explore some of the cultural norms, food, faith, pride, and language of Vietnam.  Additionally, it introduces historical concepts that many are unaware of: the United States helping Vietnamese boats reach safety, U.S. citizens being host families for refugees, etc.  This book provides a great opportunity to explore another culture while learning about the U.S.’s history as well!


Our country has recently drastically changed its relationship with the world in regards to our stance on welcoming refugees; as a result, this novel provides an opportunity to inform students of truths surrounding refugees.  The “Teaching Tolerance” website at is a phenomenal resource for lessons and supplemental ideas.


Hà struggles to bow down to the gender norms of her culture, even going so far as to secretly break a tradition:

“But last night I pouted
when Mother insisted
one of my brothers
must rise first
this morning
to bless our house
because only male feet
can bring luck.

An old, angry knot
expanded in my throat.

I decided
to wake before dawn
and tap my big toe
to the floor

Not even Mother,
sleeping beside me, knew” (2-3).

Hà struggles to bow down to the gender norms of her culture, even going so far as to secretly break a tradition:

There are multiple times that Hà pushes against the restrictions of male dominance she experiences, wanting to let her skin darken from being outside, craving scraped knees from playing, wanting muscles.  Her older brothers, however, are never shown as dominating her; instead, it is her mother who keeps the gender barriers up.

Hà is smart, struggles with language being viewed as a measurement of her abilities as her abilities in Vietnamese far surpass her abilities in her new English language, resolves her own problems, and works incredibly hard to overcome any obstacle.  Based on her interactions with her mother, her gender is not used to keep her down, but corralled.


Hà’s gender is an important part of the story, but it seems to be a bit more incidental than critical to the plot as her brothers experience restrictions and demands based on their gender as well.  It would be fascinating to read this story from one of her brother’s perspectives – how do they feel about the pressure they have on their shoulders about living up to their mother’s expectations of being a lawyer or doctor?  Do they ever want to do something that would be categorized as “feminine” by their mother and therefore rejected?  The male perspective would be an intriguing partner to this tale.


This book has a very narrowed perspective: it is truly only Hà’s point of view.  She doesn’t wonder very often how her brothers feel, she overhears a conversation her mother is having with herself that provides a big of insight to her mother, she doesn’t think about the motivation for the bully’s’ actions; instead, she is truly a ten year old girl, focused solely on herself.  Such a narrowed perspective is rare and could be a cool chance for literary criticism!



2 thoughts on “Inside Out & Back Again

Add yours

  1. Wow! I was so impressed with your blog! I loved your video, pictures, resources, quotes from the book etc. Thanks for sharing your work with us! I agree that it would be fascinating to read this story again from the perspective of one of her brothers. It makes sense that for the sake of this novel they focused on just Ha, who is only ten years old and at the age developmentally things are still very much egocentric. But this story affected more then just Ha and I would love to hear about the experience of her siblings from their point of view. Thanks again for sharing!


  2. Monica, I just love your blog! You really capture the essence of each story and the pictures, text examples and videos are an added bonus! In your summary, I liked how you touched on the subtle character development captured by the pages marked with “Every day.” Those poems demonstrate Ha’s general perceptions towards her family and her place among them. Also, I truly appreciate how you used the caution section to address the realities of refugees. This book has the potential to open up awareness about real issues around the world today. I definitely plan to check out “The Teaching Tolerance,” website. Thanks for the resource!


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