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: http://www.thanhhalai.com/listen-slowly/