Too Darn Cute

Monday, May 6, 2013

Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again
Written by Thanhha Lai
Ages: 8-12

This is a historic fiction about a ten-year-old named Ha who grows up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Because the country is becoming dangerous, she must flee with her mother and three brothers to the United States. The story reveals her physical and emotional struggles as she becomes a student in Alabama who sticks out in every way. We learn about Ha's experiences, her hopes, and her memories through a series of poetic journal entries.

I really enjoyed this one! I actually didn't know it was poetry until I opened to the first page to begin reading. While I wasn't so sure about it at first, I soon began to love that her story is told through poems. It has a simplicity in it. I am no history buff and don't know much about Vietnam or the Vietnam War, but I found this story a great way to get a little background into the culture and country. You still don't get many details about the war, but you do get many snapshots of life in Vietnam. Ha teaches a little about the food, religion, and customs of Vietnam through her journal entries. I also enjoyed the narrator, Ha. The scary and exciting and sometimes-heartbreaking story is told through her young eyes. She is very easy to relate to; Each of us has felt like an outsider trying to fit in at some point in our life. She is a sort of hero, not necessarily because she does anything extraordinarily heroic in the story, but because she faces real problems with courage and patience. 

There are so many ways I would use this book in my classroom. It is filled with teaching opportunities! Here are a few ideas I had while reading and reflecting:

Bullying: There is a very evident theme of accepting those different from us. Ha shows up to a new school where she looks, talks, and behaves differently from everyone else. Most of the children make fun of her or stay away from her, but a few important characters take the time to get to know her and help her. This would be a great book to help children think about how their actions can affect others and what they could do to help include others instead of isolate others. 

Making Inferences: This would be a great tool to use in reading comprehension while teaching the skill of making inferences. Ha uses her journalistic poetry to give us clues about things that happened during her day or how she is feeling. The book is filled with entries that would be fun to discuss with a class. I would read through an entry and decide together how she was feeling or what happened. Then, using the text, we could identify the clues Ha gives us that helped us figure it out. 

Poetry: This is a verse novel, narrated through poetry. It is a more abstract form of poetry, quite different from a lot of the poetry that we read and wrote in my 4th grade class. I think students would enjoy trying something a little less formulaic. I love that each poem is like a journal entry and she keeps them short and simple. Each one has a very specific subject (usually evident from the title). Some stood out to me as having a bit of a pattern that could help students get started. These would make fun lessons: 
  • "Birthday Wishes" (p. 30): In this entry, Ha reveals some of her hopes and wishes that she wouldn't say aloud. She begins, "Wishes I keep to myself" and then lists seven wishes, each in its own stanza. She ends with an eighth stanza that begins, "Mostly I wish..." Students could follow this pattern and share some of their own wishes through short, descriptive lines. 
  • "Not the Same" (p. 232): Papaya is a repeating symbol of Vietnam for Ha and she describes it several times. This poem is written after she is given some dried papaya and tastes it for the first time. It would be a fun poem to talk about adjectives and to let the students write their own poem using some juicy, descriptive words of a favorite, a hated, or a new food they have tried.
I would definitely recommend this book. As a read-aloud, a class novel, or a bedtime story, it would be a great one to read and discuss together.

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