Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

inside out

“When we keep talking about

how close the Communists have gotten to Saigon

…Miss Xinh finally says no more.

 

From now on

Fridays

will be for

happy news.

 

No one has anything

to say.”

-“Current News”

 

In 1975, the soldiers and bombs of the Vietnam War reach ten-year-old Hà’s hometown of Saigon. Amidst the raging war, she must leave her home behind and flee to the United States. After settling in Alabama without her friends, her father, or her favorite papaya tree, Hà must learn to navigate an entirely foreign land. Thanhha Lai’s honest account of a Vietnamese refugee makes Inside Out and Back Again an attractive text for high school students.

Lai bases Hà’s story on her own experience as an immigrant-refugee during the Vietnam War. Inside Out and Back Again grapples with ideas about home, belonging, and the ways in which war threatens these safe spaces. Teachers can frame the book’s exploration of these themes with the essential question “What makes you feel like you belong?” For Hà, her strong-willed mother and three older brothers constitute her family and the foundation of her home. However, she also associates her “home land” with the sweet scent of trees and the Tết celebrations. In contrast, she cannot speak English, abhors American fast food, and spends her lunches alone in her new home, Alabama.

Hà’s Vietnamese ethnicity also prevents others from accepting her into the American community. On her classmates’ mocking faces at school, she sees “nothing but / squeezed eyes, / twisted mouths” (146). Later in the book, someone teepees, throws eggs, and shatters a window in Hà’s house. The bullying and discrimination in the book will allow teachers to have a discussion of racial discrimination and the feeling of alienation that results from it.

For any students that have been teased because of their ethnicity, physical appearance, or linguistic differences, Hà’s encounters will resonate closely. I especially related to Hà’s frustration when her teacher, Miss Scott, makes a “ha-ha-ha” pun out of Hà’s name. In a world where YA immigrant narratives are hard to find, the rare refugee story is an essential mirror for affirming the identities of fellow refugees.

Even for students who comfortably belong in mainstream America, many will be able to relate to the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return from military duty. Hà can barely remember her own father, who left on a navy mission when she was one year old. For nine years, her family has awaited his return—even after they flee their home for America, they never forget to continue praying for his safety. For students with family members in the military, Hà’s longing and coping provides a healthy mirror for their own emotions.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

true story

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes…By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

~~

Arnold “Junior” Spirit barely walks through the entrance of his local high school, located in the Spokane Indian Reservation, before his geometry teachers convinces him to transfer to the wealthy Reardan High. At school, Junior struggles to fit in as an impoverished Indian in a predominantly white classroom. At home, members of his tribe, including his long-time buddy, Rowdy, call him a traitor for leaving the Spokane Reservation. In this hostile environment, Junior must discover, decide, and (at times) change his mind about who are “assholes” and who will bring love into his life.

From the opening line of the book, Junior’s voice is engaging, welcoming, and powerful. As a reader, I really felt like Junior was a close friend, directly talking to me. The book is peppered with silly cartoons that help pace the novel, and the resulting mix of words and drawings would be especially compelling for a reader that is easily bored by long paragraphs.

What I appreciate the most about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that it doesn’t hesitate to address a myriad of “taboo” personal issues—alcoholism, abuse, racial discrimination, poverty, eating disorders, mental illness, and more. Books will often address only one (if any) of these topics, ignoring the fact that many of Juinor’s struggles go hand-in-hand. While the book highlights the systemic injustices that American Indians face, it never employs a self-pitying tone. Instead, Junior’s love of basketball, cartoons, and his classmate Penelope keeps the narrative humorous and meaningful.

For teens that relate to any aspect of Junior’s multi-faceted identity, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is supportive and inspiring. For teens that don’t relate, Junior’s experience provides an essential window into the semi-autobiographical life of an American Indian teenager.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown and Co., 2007. Print.

By Sally

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

8306857Fact #1: Not all Iranians eat falafel.

Fact #2: Not all Iranians ride on camels.

Fact #3: Not all Iranian kill political opponents, suppress women’s rights, and hold fifty-two American citizens as hostages.

When her family moves to sunny Newport Beach, California, Zomorod Yousefzadeh is determined to become a normal American girl. At first, things are looking promising—her teachers call her Cindy, she joins the Girl Scout Troop, and eats tacos at a friend’s house. As long as her mom isn’t offering stuffed grape leaves to the neighbors, Zomorod feels like she’s starting to fit in.

Then, without warning, the shah in Iran is overthrown and fifty-two American citizens are taken hostage. Suddenly, everyone is asking Zomorod about her country’s new oppressive leader. As the hostage crisis continues, people start to hurl tomatoes and litter her driveway. Her mother cries all day, and her father loses his job. When will Zomorod ever be able to live a “regular” life?

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel provides a refreshing narrative about a Middle Eastern girl adapting to a new environment. As a bicultural girl growing up in the United States, I especially related to Zomorod’s embarrassment about her mother’s unwillingness to learn English and make American friends. That being said, because the book follows a middle school protagonist, adolescents looking for emotionally complex reflections on cultural identity might find this book dissatisfying. Its simple sentences structures and short chapters, though, make the text accessible to adolescents reading below grade level.

This semi-autobiographical novel provides an authentic voice for children caught between two cultures. Readers can also learn about real historical events from a first-person perspective and understand how ignorance and xenophobia can lead to hate crime. Especially because of the rampant Islamophobia in America today, Zomorod’s honest story is relevant, eye opening, and valuable.

By Sally

Dumas, Firoozeh. 2016. It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.