Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“Inside Out and Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai

Harper, 2011       

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for the best YA title of the year just happens to be another great find for my Best Contemporary Historical Novels list, and I couldn’t be more excited!

This aching and spare novel in verse (which totally deserves the honor!), tells a story of a ten-year-old girl, Ha, whose family must escape from Vietnam in the last year of the war, and start over in Alabama.

I think it’s the details that really brought this story to life, and made it great — the taste and look of papaya, Ha’s favorite fruit; her apt descriptions of people in her home country and in the new land; her struggles with English and with being made to feel “dumb.”

That, and the characterization of the tough, spunky heroine who knows what she wants and what she doesn’t. And the voice, at once spare and lyrical.


My new teacher has brown curls

looped tight to her scalp

like circles in a beehive.

She points to her chest:

MiSSS SScott,

saying it three times,

each louder

with ever more spit.

I repeat, MiSSS SScott,

careful to hiss every s.

She doesn’t seem impressed.

I tap my own chest:


She must have heard


as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Ha,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark,

this one directing

the tone


My new teacher tilts

her head back,


an even sadder laugh.


Isn’t this beautiful?

I think this is especially perfect for a middle-grade social studies classroom. Kids would learn a lot about that period of time by reading this book. And not just kids — I know I have.

Congratulations, Thanhha!


December 2, 2011 - Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History


  1. I am sooo excited that this book won the NBA! Hubby just picked it up at the library for me today. And I am going to treat myself to a great read this evening and tomorrow!

    Thanks for the post, Katia!

    Comment by Joyce Moyer Hostetter | December 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. I’ll bet you’ll finish it in one gulp, Joyce, like a delicious little rice cake. 🙂 I know you will enjoy.

    Comment by Katia Raina | December 2, 2011 | Reply

  3. I heard Lai speak at ALAN. Her talk on the panel was wonderful. And then this blog post pops up. I downloaded her book and can’t wait to read it.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | December 3, 2011 | Reply

    • You teach middle school now, right Medeia? In that case, yep, perfect for you, on so many levels.

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 3, 2011 | Reply

      • Yes, I do–perfect. I might dive into the book tonight or tomorrow.

        Comment by Medeia Sharif | December 3, 2011

  4. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I haven’t had time to follow the awards, but this is a book I must get for myself. It is, indeed, beautiful.

    Comment by Clara Gillow Clark | December 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Glad to spread the word. Very worthy!

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 3, 2011 | Reply

  5. I hadn’t heard of this book, but the cover is stunning!

    Comment by Sarah Pearson | December 3, 2011 | Reply

    • And what’s between the covers is even more so! 🙂 Enjoy!

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 3, 2011 | Reply

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