I read an amazing book by Thanhha Lai a few months ago. This is what I wrote about it then:
Inside Out and Back Again has set alight a spark in me, and for the past few days I have lived through the eyes of the main character, Hà.
Thanhha Lai weaves a thread of emotion back and forth between Hà‘s heart and my own.
This is about the aftermath of war, and racial discrimination, and I am itching to read it to my little clutch of 8-year-olds. Will they understand? I am too impatient to wait until the end of the year, when they are just a bit older. Do they need to be older?
The story takes place in Vietnam and Alabama. To be honest, both places are equally foreign to these kids.
And now? I am almost done reading the book to my 3rd graders. And I was right to be tentative.
Thanhha Lai beautifully displays Hà’s character, with depth and emotion. I came to know and love Hà as the story progressed, and I wanted my kids to progress with her.
In a culture where bullying is a trigger word, I wanted my particular group of kids this year to broaden their view. Hà escaped a WAR. She became a REFUGEE in a strange new place. She had to learn a strange new language. Hà experienced RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. I guess what I wanted was to give my kids the opportunity to put their first world problems into perspective.
It did not go the way I planned.
My smart, sensitive class thinks Hà is wildly funny. They treat this heartbreaking character exactly the same way as the bullies in the book do. They call her names—and my kids laugh. She struggles with English—and they giggle. I expected understanding and got something ugly. Not what I anticipated.
It was a reminder that my own response to stories as an adult is not a predictor of what children will get out of it.
My students can see with absolute clarity that the kids in the book are bullies. But seeing it in themselves? Not so easy. If Ha were in our class, I think she would have the same issues as in the story. We have some work to do.
But . . . Tuesday was Library Day. One of my girls searched for Inside Out and Back Again on the shelves, checked it out excitedly, and asked me, “Mrs, Seegmiller, what page are we on? I have to know what happens to Hà.” Her parents split up this year, I know it has changed her. She is a strong girl, and she knows something about learning empathy through experience.
I will definitely try again next year.
What stories have given you a powerful glimpse into another person’s life?