Book Review: Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai

After reading Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai, I was so impressed that I went ahead an checked out Listen, Slowly from the library as well.  This novel is both completely different and also tied by a similar beauty of language and compelling emotional style to Inside Out & Back Again.

In Listen, Slowly, first-generation, twelve-year-old Mai gets sent back to Vietnam for the summer to connect with her roots and help her grandmother resolve a family mystery.  The story is simple enough in its plot, but it captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl her age, living in two worlds at once.  I love the progression of Mai’s character through the novel, and I love listening to her voice develop.

In some ways, Listen, Slowly tells a part of the story of Inside Out & Back Again backwards.  Obviously the two are in very very different settings:  separated by time and regions of the US and regions of Vietnam.  The use of language and how it is peppered through the story is an amazing look at how a home language of childhood lingers on in the mind, and how it is understandable and yet incomprehensible at times.

The narrative of friendship in the book is also beautifully compelling.  I really want to hand this book to students, but I also want to hand it to a lot of adults.  I think that it does both an excellent job of explaining the experience of someone with Mai’s background, and also of explaining kids on the brink of being teenagers.

(Also, I think that I’ve found a new author to add to my list of favorites.)

Reading Level:  Mid-elementary through middle school.  I think that a lot of high school students wouldn’t get as much out of this book as they possibly could because they would see it as “childish.”  I could definitely see giving it to college students though, especially studied along with Inside Out & Back Again or along with other narratives of children of immigrants.

There are useful guides and comments on the book on her website:


Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai

Inside Out & Back Again is a collection of poetry by Thanhhà Lai that tells the story of Hà, a Vietnamese girl who flees Saigon to the US with her family at the end of the war.  Through journal like poetic entries, Lai shows the progression of emotions and events that effect Hà and her family.  The story is emotionally compelling and understandable without giving a lot of the historical details, instead enriching them with an understanding of experience.

The volume is divided into sections, and each caries its own flavor and tone that creates a beautiful whole capturing Hà’s experience.

“Part I – Saigon”

The first section of the collection begins the year 1975 and stretches through the end of April of that year.  I shows in vignettes and snippets of childish viewpoint the growing tensions and fear of the Vietnam War interspersed with lighthearted, relatable childishness.  Hà’s family is easy to like and easy to feel an affinity for, and it is important to see the normal seeming life that is occasionally broken up by the details of living in a war.


“Part II – At Sea”

The second section carries through the realities of the escape from Vietnam at the ending of the war.  It picks up where “Saigon” left off and continues to early August of that year.  It is in some ways the most desperate part of the story, and parts are hard to read, but even then, there is a certain childlike joy that creeps through, and there is a sense of hope and family and caring that caries through.


“Part III – Alabama”

The third section of the volume picks up from the end of “At Sea” and details the family’s life and trials settling in in Alabama.  This section stretches through to nearly the end of the year, late December, and it is a glaring look at racism in America while still being uplifting and showing the human ability to connect with others no matter what.  The trials of learning English are wonderfully depicted in this section, and Hà remains a compelling, fascinating narrator.  Watching her grow and learn throughout the poems was definitely fascinating.


“Part IV – From Now On”

The final part is the shortest, going from where “Alabama” left off and carrying through to  Tết (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year) again, bringing the book through a full cycle of the year.  This part returns to hopeful looking to the future, and echoes in many beautiful ways the opening of the book.


I love most of all how the book encompasses the message of the dedication:

“To the millions of refugees in the world,
may you each find a home.”

This book would be such a valuable read to help students understand the feelings of those displaced and coming to a new country.  There is so much that  is relatable and understandable in this story, and that is important.   I definitely recommend reading this book, and I think that it could make a really valuable addition to a curriculum about narratives of those affected by wars.

Reading Level:  Mid elementary school through middle school.  I’d probably be most inclined to give this book to sixth or seventh graders.  It can definitely be appreciated by older students and adult readers, but I think that it would present the best learning moment for students in that age range.

Note:  I have been gone from this project for a long time because real life intervened.  I hope that I can slowly start posting more often.  I’ve at last gotten myself situated with library time in my schedule again, which should help.  I also have a few stacks of unread books that were slated for this project.