Let Us Not Forget: A Review of ‘Inside Out & Back Again’

“Dear friends, let us not forget the flesh of Christ which is in the flesh of refugees: their flesh is the flesh of Christ.”—Pope Francis

Suggested Grade Levels:

Grades 6-8

Review and Thoughts

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about a young Vietnamese girl named Ha.  While Ha is a young girl in Vietnam, she witnesses the fall of Saigon, escapes with her family to Alabama, and struggles to learn to adapt to a new life in America.  The innocent viewpoint of the young girl is a stark contrast to the seriousness of the war and of her position as a refugee.  The novel, which is written entirely in poetry, is simple and delicate and tells a story of survival and growth for Ha and her family.

The novel is broken into four parts.  Each part speaks of a different portion of Ha’s journey.  She tells about her life in Saigon before the North comes and her eventual escape from Saigon.  Next, she describes her terrible journey on boat floating at sea and nearly starving until she and her family are rescued by the Americans.  Her family’s “adoption” by a man in Alabama and their struggle to adapt to a new culture is a difficult one.  Finally, she accepts her family’s fate and learns to live as a young girl in Alabama.

Ha’s story will resonate well with young girls and boys simply because she gives such a personal perspective of the atrocities of war and of loss. She is totally preoccupied with her own life and dreams when she suddenly has to pack up and leave.  She loses her dear father and her entire family is affected by this.  Her family works hard to be accepted oftentimes forgoing their own beliefs and culture to try to become closer to their neighbors.

On top of everything else, Ha really struggles with school.  Any young student knows how difficult school can sometimes be, so it is easy to connect with Ha and her own hardships with making friends.  She does not speak the language, she is the only Asian student in her class, and none of the other kids reach out to her.  On top of the social complications, she struggles with learning since she does not speak the language.  She admits that this is the first time she has felt “stupid” despite the fact that she knows the information.  This makes her time at school a real struggle for her and she spends most of her time alone.

Though Inside Out & Back Again is a fictional piece, the author followed much of the same journey as Ha.  She, too, escaped Saigon and moved to Alabama.  I believe this helps with her connection with the reader. She is able to create great empathy for the reader.  This is also why I feel that historical fiction books like this are crucial to the education of young people.  This book in particular demonstrates some of the atrocities of war and allows readers to empathize with the main character and her family.

Inside Out & Back Again won the National Book Award in 2011 and the John Newberry Honor Award in 2012.  It was on the New York Times Best Seller List and is popping up on current recommended book lists in many schools around the country.  I believe many children will be touched by this story.  Adults, too, can read the book and feel for Ha and her family which makes this a good book for parents to read along with their child.

Possible Issues

While the following things are not seriously troubling, they might be helpful to note for parents for discussion purposes.

  • The baby chick that Ha’s brother loves and has kept in his pocket as they try to escape dies. It is a difficult moment for her brother and could be difficult for a sensitive child.
  • There is a scuffle on the ship as the family is trying to escape Vietnam and a man is stabbed in the heart with a toothbrush.

Further Discussion

  • During the novel, Ha’s family is struggling to connect with neighbors. They are unkind and unwelcoming.  Her mother decides that they should get baptized at the local Baptist Church.  After this happens, the neighbors are much more welcoming.  This is great opportunity for a discussion and reminder about our Baptism as Catholics and why it is a difficult, yet incorrect choice, for the family to accept this baptism.
  • Almost everyone treats this family poorly, with the exception of the Alabama man who “adopts” them. They are not welcoming to the family, in fact they are often rude and mean.  This presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about our role with refugees.  What does the church teach about helping refugees?  What is our responsibility?
  • The children at school are not very welcoming to Ha until the teacher steps in. Though the majority of the students aren’t mean, they aren’t necessarily welcoming either.  Most students continue their normal routines with little thought of Ha.  Sometimes it’s as if she doesn’t exist.  This is a good opportunity to talk to young readers about how they treat people in a school setting.  Sometimes it takes real courage and kindness to accept those who may not necessarily fit in with everyone else.

Catholic Resources

  • It is important to discuss our role with refugees as Catholics. Here are some helpful references for discussing this topic:
      • This is a video by Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J. , J.D. about the Key Principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

  • This document discusses the Catholic Social Teaching and Migration.  The section about refugees appears on page 3.
  • Read about the patron saint of refugees, St. Alban.
  • Pray the prayer for refugees and victims of war.
  • Pray the prayer for migrants and refugees.

General Teaching Resources

  • Watch this video showing some of the last evacuations out of Saigon and discuss some of the differences between the fictional story and the real evacuation.  (While this video shows a different form of evacuation, encourage children to compare the emotions of the people involved and not the means of their escape.)

  • This is a great lesson plan for an 8th grade classroom, however it can be adapted to different grade levels.