Saturday, April 12, 2014

Inside Out & Back Again

Author:  Thanhha Lai
Published: 2011
Newbery Honor Book
National Book Award Winner
I'm not a big reader of poetry.  As a child I remember learning about poetry and I thought it was just a way for people to write without regard to the rules of writing.  I don't really understand poetry and why things are lined up like they are, why things are not capitalized, or why punctuation seems to be missing.  I understood poetry with rules, limericks, sonnets, and if they rhymed then even better, but that's about it.  I was always embarrassed when teachers had us write poetry and then I had to read it aloud.  I felt like a fraud. 

The book I picked to read related to poetry is Inside Out & Back Again.  This is free verse.  I had to look that up to understand what that meant.  I'm not sure if I could teach about free verse, but here are some sites that helped me learn about it:

I liked the description I read on one site and it is what we say to our children all of the time as they write, "Show me, don't tell me!"  Since it's Poetry Month maybe I'll have to give it a try even though it scares me A LOT!  Here is an excerpt from the book that helped me see what Ha was experiencing when she boarded the ship to escape from Vietnam.  This is such a visual description of her experience. 

Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.

I looked up information on the author, Thanhha Lai, because I wanted to understand why she wrote in free verse.  I found it interesting that one of her favorite books is Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, one of the books we have to read for our class.  Was she inspired to write because of the poetry she had read?

Vietnamese flag
I struck gold, I found a recording of Thanhha Lai explaining why she chose to write a poem.  It turns out that the Vietnamese language is based on Chinese and that the Chinese language is based on pictures.  Ms. Lai found the English language too long and complicated to express her own language.  Writing the story as a poem let her write the pictures.  Here is the clip where she explains all of this.  She also reads a poem from the book.

This story is based on Thanhha Lai's life.  She bases the story on her own experiences. 

I have to tell you, this book helped me love poetry.  I liked that it was a story and taught me about history and that it was very easy to read. 

This is the story of Ha, a young girl born in Vietnam and living with her mother and three brothers.  Her father left for a job in the navy nine years earlier and never returned.  It is now 1975 and North Vietnam has conquered South Vietnam so it is now entirely communist.  The family decides that it is best to escape even if they are still waiting for father.  They will find a way to communicate with the family and reconnect if he is still alive.

The story is divided into four different parts.  The first part is Saigon.  In Saigon Ha is smart, has
friends, and enjoys growing plants.  She is especially fond of papaya.  Ha's mother finally decides to leave when President Thieu announces that he is retiring, but he will never leave his people or country.  Ha's mother knows that he is lying.  I found an article in The New York Times from the death of President Thieu in 2001.  Soon after leaving Vietnam, he moved to London and then Boston where he lived and eventually died.

Part II Of the book is At Sea.  This is the voyage to escape Vietnam and when Ha says good-bye to Vietnam and her old life.  Her brother says good-bye to his baby chick, she says goody-bye to her old doll, and the yellow flag with red stripes is lowered.  Americans discover the ship with these families and they are then taken to Guam.  It is in Guam that they learn English and choose where they want to go from there.  Mother chooses America.  The family is transported to Florida until it is sponsored by a "cowboy" in Alabama. 

Part III of the book is Alabama.  In order to leave the camp in Florida, Vietnamese families had to be sponsored by an American.  The American who sponsors Ha's family takes her and her family to Alabama.  Life is difficult in Alabama because no one has seen anyone like this family before.  Also, Ha feels dumb because she is learning a new language and the teacher has the children clap for her whenever she does something correctly.  They don't know that she knows multiple digit multiplication and that she really is smart.  Eventually, she shows them and to make things better she makes friends.  Things start looking up. 

Part IV is From Now On.  It is a new year, Tet, and luck starts on the New Year.  The family has accepted that father is gone, Ha is doing well in school, and her brothers are going to school and getting jobs.  Everyone is hopeful.

After I finished reading this book I met a woman from Vietnam, Trini.  I told her about the book and then she told me her story.  Trini was born in 1975 and her mom tried to escape many times.  Once she was even able to board a helicopter to escape, but one of her siblings could not board, so they could not leave.  It was not until the 80s that Trini and her family were able to leave.  She said that they were lucky.  They lived in a small farming village between the north and the south and it was so poor that no one paid any attention to them.  Their village was left alone.  She didn't have electricity and she and her family grew their own food.  She was raised as a vegetarian so they ate a lot of rice mixed with fruits.  She was also raised Buddhist and respects all life and faiths. 

Her family finally escaped and went to the Philippines.  They had to wait for an American sponsor to leave and their sponsor eventually took them all to Texas.  Eventually, she left Texas, went to California, and is now here in Virginia.  She and her family are American citizens and she said to me, "We live in the best country." 

Trini's story helped validate the information I read in Inside Out & Back Again.  I am grateful that I was exposed to this story and was then able to share with Trini. 

Thanhha Lai blog entry
Check this book out from the library.

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