From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This is a beautiful book. I didn’t know much about it, though, except that it had was getting a bunch of awards and had a gorgeous cover. It lived up to expectations, certainly.

Hà is ten years old, living with her three older brothers and mother in Saigon in 1975. Let me remind you — today, Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. And what was going on in Vietnam in 1975? Yep.

Needless to say, Hà’s mother is worried for her family’s safety. But if she leaves Vietnam, her husband (who was lost at war) would never be able to find them again. The situation is desperate, though, and soon they have very little choice but to escape with Hà’s uncle’s family, on a boat bound for America. And it’s because of what happens once they hit the American shores that made me fall in love with this book and this girl.

I’ve never read a book that seems to so perfectly capture the young English language learner experience. Of course, I don’t have any personal experience as an ELL, but I AM reading an informational book for educators right now (Getting Started with English Language Learners, by Judie Haynes) and everything Haynes is telling me about ELLs shows up in this text. This either is a sign of authenticity for Lai or for Haynes (I’m not sure which), but because of this, the story definitely rings true. From Hà’s realization that a, an, and thes act like “little metaphors to tell the world whose English is still secondhand”, to her struggle with knowing she used to be smart and now feels incredibly stupid, it made me understand the ELL experience way more than I think Haynes’ book can.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s all written in verse? Beautiful, heart-breaking, hilarious, thoughtful verse?

I want everybody — especially everybody in a school setting where you may interact with students learning English — to read this book. Please.

2.5 stars

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2 thoughts on “From Saigon to Alabama

  1. Every time I try to steal this book away from our library to read it myself, a student asks for it! It’s a big hit with our Vietnamese students, and they are spreading the word like wildfire. I just may have to request this one from the public libraries instead (yep, they’re all checked out of there too!).

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