Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Our Score

Inside Out and Back Again is the second free verse middle grade novel that I’ve read and enjoyed recently. Perhaps, that’s because it’s the 2011 winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newbery Honor Book for 2012.

The subject matter is also close to my heart: the plight of the Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Using her own life story, Thanhha Lai creates a fictional version of ten-year-old Ha who leaves Saigon under siege, lives in a refugee camp for months, and arrives in Alabama to start her new life in America.


The story opens in Vietnam where Ha’s father disappeared years ago, presumably captured by the North Vietnamese. Her mother works hard to feed and clothe Ha and her three older brothers. While I ached for the family’s struggles as they prepared to flee Vietnam, the story really caught my interest as they tried to adjust to a different culture. Ha can’t speak the language, she doesn’t like being treated like a small child since she can’t read at her grade level, and spelling in English makes no sense at all. I’m sure many of you agree! Some of the children in her class bully her, but a few are kind and reach out in friendship. As their first year in America unfolds, Ha depends on her brothers and her English tutor to survive in school. With each passing month, she gains a little more confidence and a few more insights into her new country.


  1. Thanhha Lai expertly weaves Vietnamese culture through much of the plot via Ha’s observations, actions, and emotions.
  2. The Author’s Note at the end of the book adds to the satisfaction as she describes what were true events in her story. AND she strongly encourages her readers to ask others to tell their story. She leaves us with a thought-provoking question: “How much do we know about those around us?”
  3. This is a book of hope. A little girl who goes through so much heartache, yet at the end looks forward to the next year of her life—that’s a story you want to read!


  1. After those three PROS above, could there be CONS?
  2. I’ll name one scene that made me uncomfortable—not that I believe it’s a CON, but a few Pharisees might consider this detrimental to the book. In order to be accepted by the neighborhood, the family agrees to be baptized. They don’t know why they should do this, but if it makes the Americans happy, they will oblige. I believe it was wrongful action by Ha’s sponsor, which isn’t the book’s fault. What happened in the story, happened.


A study guide is available through


I’ll leave you with a fun aside. Name pronunciation always fascinates me. I assumed Thanhha Lai was pronounced Tonna Lie. Wrong. has an audio of Thanhha Lai describing how to pronounce her name.  The closest I can describe it: Tang (voice rises) Ha (voice descends) Lie.

Linda Samaritoni
Linda Samaritoni, writing as Linda Sammaritan, has her feet firmly on the ground and her mind reaching for heaven. Each day is an adventure on her journey with Jesus. After a career teaching middle-graders, Linda loves to write contemporary and historical stories for the same age group. She also loves to jot down metaphors within spiritual ideas. Check out her other blog and author website

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