Inside Out & Back Again

by Thanhha Lai (Author)

Reading Level: 4th − 5th Grade

Inside Out and Back Again is a #1 New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award!

Inspired by the author's childhood experience as a refugee--fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama--this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child's-eye view of family and immigration.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing received four starred reviews, including one from Kirkus which proclaimed it "enlightening, poignant, and unexpectedly funny." An author's note explains how and why Thanhha Lai translated her personal experiences into Hà's story.

Select format:


Starred Review
Written in accessible, short free-verse poems, Hà's immediate narrative describes her mistakes—both humorous and heartbreaking; and readers will be moved by Hà's sorrow as they recognize the anguish of being the outcast.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review
In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

Narrating in sparse free-verse poems, 10-year-old Ha brings a strong, memorable voice to the immigrant experience as her family moves from war-torn South Vietnam to Alabama in 1975. First-time author Lai, who made the same journey with her family, divides her novel into four sections set in Vietnam, "At Sea," and the last two in Alabama. Lai gives insight into cultural and physical landscapes, as well as a finely honed portrait of Ha's family as they await word about Ha's POW father and face difficult choices (awaiting a sponsor family, ."..Mother learns/ sponsors prefer those/ whose applications say 'Christians.'/ Just like that/ Mother amends our faith, / saying all beliefs/ are pretty much the same"). The taut portrayal of Ha's emotional life is especially poignant as she cycles from feeling smart in Vietnam to struggling in the States, and finally regains academic and social confidence. A series of poems about English grammar offer humor and a lens into the difficulties of adjusting to a new language and customs ("Whoever invented English/ should be bitten/ by a snake"). An incisive portrait of human resilience. Ages 8-12. (Mar.)

Copyright 2011 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 4-6--A story based on the author's childhood experiences. Ha is 10 when Saigon falls and her family flees Vietnam. First on a ship, then in two refugee camps, and then finally in Alabama, she and her family struggle to fit in and make a home. As Ha deals with leaving behind all that is familiar, she tries to contain her temper, especially in the face of school bullies and the inconsistencies of the English language. She misses her papaya tree, and her family worries about friends and family remaining in Vietnam, especially her father, who was captured by Communist forces several years earlier. Told in verse, each passage is given a date so readers can easily follow the progression of time. Sensory language describing the rich smells and tastes of Vietnam draws readers in and contrasts with Ha's perceptions of bland American food, and the immediacy of the narrative will appeal to those who do not usually enjoy historical fiction. Even through her frustration with her new life and the annoyances of her three older brothers, her voice is full of humor and hope.--Jennifer Rothschild, Prince George's County Memorial Library System, Oxon Hill, MD

Copyright 2011 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

"American and Vietnamese characters alike leap to life through the voice and eyes of a ten-year-old girl—a protagonist so strong, loving, and vivid I longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya."—Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
January 20, 2013
BISAC categories
JUV013000 - Juvenile Fiction | Family | General
JUV039250 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Emigration & Immigration
JUV011020 - Juvenile Fiction | People & Places | United States - Asian American
JUV030020 - Juvenile Fiction | People & Places | Asia
Library of Congress categories
Vietnamese Americans
Novels in verse
Emigration and immigration
National Book Awards
Winner 2011 - 2011
Newbery Medal
Honor Book 2012 - 2012
Capitol Choices: Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens
Recommended 2012 - 2012
Black-Eyed Susan Award
Nominee 2012 - 2013
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award
Nominee 2013 - 2013
Jane Addams Children's Book Award
Honor Book 2012 - 2012
Charlie May Simon Children's Book Award
Nominee 2013 - 2014
South Carolina Childrens, Junior and Young Adult Book Award
Nominee 2012 - 2013
Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award
Nominee 2013 - 2013
Rhode Island Children's Book Awards
Nominee 2013 - 2013
Nene Award
Nominee 2013 - 2013
Sequoyah Book Awards
Nominee 2014 - 2014
Beehive Awards
Nominee 2014 - 2014
Sasquatch Award
Nominee 2014 - 2014
Nutmeg Book Award
Nominee 2014 - 2014
Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award
Nominee 2014 - 2014
North Carolina Children's Book Award
Nominee 2014 - 2014
Iowa Children's Choice (ICCA) Award
Nominee 2014 - 2015
Virginia Readers Choice Award
Nominee 2015 - 2015

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