By Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán, Teachers College, Columbia University
“If someone is different from you, go stand next to her and observe. That person just brought another world to your door without you having to travel.”
This Sunday, November 18, a group of teachers, librarians, and teacher educators had the pleasure to hear award-winning author Thanhha Lai talking about her novel Inside Out and Back Again.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the United States Board on Books for Young people (USBBY) Co-Sponsored the Session: Outstanding International Books for Children and Young Adults, and Multicultural Literature in Immigration
The USBBY aims to build bridges of international understanding through children’s and young adult books. The experiences of immigrant children and youth are often the focus of literature created in and outside the U.S. The topic of immigration is relevant to our work as educators as we try to understand the immigrant experience, especially of underrepresented groups, such as Vietnamese Americans, in children’s and young adult literature.a
It was a pleasure to introduce and to listen to author Thanhha Lai, whose work was not included in the Outstanding International Books (OIB) list because she is a Vietnamese-born US author. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Texas, Austin and has a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing from NYU. She has taught writing for many years at Parsons in New York City.
Thanhha Lai has published short stories in numerous journal and anthologies. Inside Out and Back Again, published by Harper Collins, is her first novel, inspired by her own experiences as a Vietnamese who immigrated to Alabama. The novel was a New York Times Bestseller, a Newbery Honor book, and the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (and it will be published in paperback this coming January).
Thanhha Lai’s writing has been described as enlightening, poignant, lovely, and self-provoking, “a spare, poetic prose style meant to reflect in English what it’s like to think in Vietnamese” (Publishers Weekly in TeachingBooks.net).
In an interview for the School Library Journal, Thanhha Lai shared what she has told her five-year-old: “If someone is different from you, go stand next to her and observe. That person just brought another world to your door without you having to travel.” We were lucky to have the opportunity to listen to her experience writing Inside Out and Back Again and to learn about her perspective on the novel. For her, it was important to add humor to the experiences lived by Ha, the protagonist of the novel, inspired by her own life. What a refugee experiences and loses when she is transplanted from her own land to a host country is incredibly painful, affirms Thanhha Lai; however, even in such circumstances, there is always room for laughter and hope, and she did make us laugh with her talk sharing personal and humorous stories from her own family.
An idea that stood out from her talk was her view of the “ideal reader.” She shared a letter of a Vietnamese girl who identified so much with the novel and who, for the first time, found herself in a book. While this reader is definitely someone who can benefit from reading her novel, for Thanhha Lai, the ideal reader would be a 10-year old suburban mainstream boy who, although most likely at first wouldn’t connect to her story, or would feel sorry for Ha’s experiences, slowly would move to recognize himself in the girl’s experiences. This boy would represent the outsider who can connect to the insider’s experiences of the characters in the novel. For Thanhha Lai, multicultural literature meshes the outside with the inside. Thanhha Lai thanked the teachers and librarians who put multicultural literature in their students’ hands that invite them to live through the inside of the outside experience in the stories.
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