This award-winning story is told from Ha’s perspective in prose of somewhat broken English, yet typed in a poetic format. It is easy to read, short lines, few words on each page, every one to three pages is a new day. The story begins in Saigon where Ha, her mother, and three older brothers live. Ha’s father has gone missing in action. The family is trying to hold onto hope while Vietnam is filled with war and strife. The war has not yet come to Saigon.
The author’s firsthand experiences as an immigrant, torn a way from her native land of Vietnam when she was ten years old is the structure upon which this novel is based.
For one year, we follow Ha’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, written into her diary. In the beginning, Saigon seems far from the war zone so life seems fairly normal from a ten year old’s eyes and heart. She knows and loves this city. The disappearance of her father as he serves in the South Vietnamese army brings the war much closer to Ha’s heart, yet she still goes about her days. The Vietnam War quickly moves closer to Saigon and the family must flee.
We follow Ha as she boards a ship to the United States, eventually landing in Alabama. Living there brings on a whole new set of problems for Ha. She is young and vulnerable as an immigrant. Bullying and teasing are a daunting reality for Ha, yet there are others who truly care about Ha and her family. Caring comes through an American teacher as well as from the man who “sponsored” them.
The story seems and feels so real. This is the diary of a girl in an extremely difficult period of her young life. Thanhha Lai writes from personal life events, placing some of those into Ha’s hands. Her words are written superbly bringing a story of what a child, a ten year old, experiences in having to flee her native country and only home she has ever known.
The ESL teacher who cares about Ha and her family is real for me. I was an ESL teacher to sixty elementary-aged children for a number of years during my teaching career. There were thirteen languages spoken among those sixty children. Even the children could not communicate very well at first with one another. The language barrier was HUGE! It was vital that the children learned the language of their new country because they became the bridge for the parents in many cases. The children took their English lessons home each day to teach their parents and others in the neighborhoods where they found themselves. Immigrants from many Far Eastern countries, Mexico, Central America, and even one child from Romania were among my children. See how I still call them “my children.” I just loved them and wanted the best for them as they had lost so much.
English is a tough language to learn. There are so very many exceptions to the rules, so many words that sound alike but mean different things. So much to try to understand.
switch all over
Would be simpler
and life were logical.”
the spelling changes
when adding an s.
Knife becomes knives.
a c is used
instead of a k,
it makes more sense
for cat to be spelled kat.
a y is used
instead of an e,
it makes more sense
for moldy to be spelled molde.
Whoever invented English
should have learned
And there are many more delightful insights into the language I call mine.
This window into a ten year old’s shattered and changing life is filled with introspection and insight into what children go through when we, as adults, are busy trying to care for them and handle everything else, living in the stresses of war, emigrating, loss of a husband, and so much more. The children are going through their own battles and have years ahead of them in which to live with these life-changing events in their own ways. With our world of today (2016) filled with war-torn countries, families fleeing for their lives, fleeing to safety and hope, this one year from a girl’s heart, soul, and mind gives the reader a real glimpse into the lives of many we may have in our own neighborhoods.
I wake up with
…It helps that
the morning air glides cool
like a constant washcloth
against my face.
Reading Level: 8 – 12 years
Thanhha Lai was born in Saigon, Vietnam. After the Vietnam War in 1975, her family immigrated to Montgomery, Alabama. She currently lives north of New York City.
“Most importantly, I’ve started a not-for-profit organization called Viet Kids Inc. to buy bicycles for poor students in Vietnam.”
You can find Ms. Lai here.
A second novel has recently been published and is a bestseller too: Listen, Slowly
- National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, 2011
- Newbery Honor, 2012
- New York Times Bestseller
- Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor for Older Children, 2012
- ALA Notable Children’s Book 2012, Middle
- Booklist 2011 Editors’ Choice, Books for Youth, Fiction, Middle Reader
- Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of 2011
- Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books 2011, Fiction
- SLJ Best Books of 2011, Fiction
- Booklist Lasting Connections of 2012, Social Studies
- Notable Children’s Book in the English Language Arts, 2012
- CCBC Choices, 2012
- Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2012, World History & Culture
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins; Reprint edition (January 2, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061962791
- ISBN-13: 978-0061962790
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.6 inches