Sunday, December 27, 2015

Listen, Slowly

Listen, Slowly
Thanhha Lai
HarperCollins, 2016  260 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Lai's sophomore novel returns to the Vietnamese/American experience, this time in a more contemporary setting than her National Book Award winner and Newbery honor book Inside Out and Back Again. Mai (when at home)/Mia (with friends) must forgo her summer of lazing on the beach with her friends in her California coastal hometown to accompany her doctor father and grandmother, Ba, to Vietnam. Dad is returning to his boyhood home to fix cleft palates in children to poor to pay for the procedure. Ba is on a mission to try and find her long-lost husband; a missing soldier from the Vietnam War. Mia is not happy to babysit Ba and is ill prepared for the humidity, bugs, and chaos of her ancestral homeland. While Dad takes care of medical business, Ba and Mai travel to the village of Ba's youth to reconnect with family and track down Ong, the missing grandpa. Mai becomes reluctant friends with Ut, a tomboy more interested in frogs than traditional pursuits and Minh, a boy who is studying at an American school and serves as Mai's interpreter. Meanwhile, Mai rediscovers the lost relationship she shared in her preschool days with her grandmother, as the long-forgotten Vietnamese language starts to reenter her consciousness. The detective sent to find Ong returns to the village with Ong's guard from the war, when he was held prisoner. The guard has information about Ong's time spent under his care and knows of a message left for his family. Ba is determined to see this message, which leads them to the busy city of Saigon and hidden tunnels formally used to house the Vietnamese army. Mai must learn to reconcile her California present with her Vietnamese roots and to own what is really important in life, as she stops checking her Facebook page and becomes Ba's partner and support on their journey of realization.

Inside Out and Back Again explores the immigrant experience of a Vietnamese family escaping the war raging their country in 1975, written in heartfelt narrative verse. Now, Lai considers the next generation, this time written in a traditional novel format. We travel along with Mai as she experiences the land of her ancestors, as foreign to her as it would be to us. Her mind is on home and everything she is missing. She follows on-line the exploits of her best friend, who is hanging out with her crush and may not be as good of a friend as Mai always thought. As time in Vietnam increases, so does Mai's understanding of her Grandmother, as she slowly falls into her roots and learns to adapt. From food to clothing, Mai becomes a proper Vietnamese girl by the end of the book. Clothing is not the only change: Mai also grows up, becomes less of a brat, and begins to appreciate her grandmother and support her on the journey. This is a book about learning how to communicate and how to properly listen. By books end, Mai is understanding and speaking Vietnamese and is starting to teach her new friend Ut English, as the two girls also reach an understanding on a personal level. This story will be universally enjoyed by both boys and girls and would work well in a classroom setting. My only negative is that sometimes I became confused with the Vietnamese names and perhaps a small glossary in the back would have been helpful explaining ways of addressing people, which is very important to this culture, as reflected in the book. The town I work in houses many first and second generation American children. Although we do not boast a significant Vietnamese population, this story would translate to any child looking to connect to their roots or to better understand parents and grandparents who emigrated from a different land. There is a connection with the current state of America, as we absorb war refuges from the middle east. It also will expose readers to the realities of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people and the land and culture of this beautiful country. We learn about Vietnam right along with Mai and it personally made me want to visit the country for myself. Or at least take the bus into New York to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant.

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