There is more than just similarity in book jackets that link two recently published middle-age novels together. “Inside Out & Back Again” and “Under the Mesquite” are both debut novels for authors Thanhha Lai and Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Each draws from personal experiences as immigrants to the United States and tells semi-autobiographical stories in free-verse poetry as dated journal entries.
Both female protagonists in the novels find difficulties in the new country, particularly learning a new language, but helpful teachers serve as support. The girls contend with a missing parent in each story — one assumed deceased and the other dying of cancer.
While the many similarities may suggest duplicated stories, this is not the case. Each novel is unique, exquisitely written, and full of poignant and personal experiences drawn from cultural changes that are made. To attest to these outstanding qualities, “Inside Out & Back Again” and “Under the Mesquite” have each recently won national book awards for young readers.
“INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN,” by Thanhha Lai, HarperCollins, $15.99, 261 pages (f)(ages 8-12)
Ten-year-old Ha’s father has been missing in action for nine years fighting the Vietnam War. Ha, her mother and three older brothers flee their threatened city of Saigon, first traveling by crowded boat to Guam, then to Alabama where sponsors promise refuge and employment. In free-verse poetry, Ha relates her family’s harrowing escape and a year’s hardships in a new country.
Ha misses her homeland, her friends, the rain, the traditions and food especially papaya from the tree in their backyard. Alabama offers only dry flat landscape, heckling neighbors (they only relent after the family has been “dipped” in a Baptist church), dirty mismatched furniture (“Even at our poorest/we always had/beautiful furniture/and matching dishes”) and clothes that are ridiculed. (She came to school in a flannel nightgown because it more closely resembled other classmates’ dresses.)
Worst of all were the racial slurs, the bullies who followed her from school. She remembers being a star pupil in Vietnam but now studies in a class of younger children. The language is hard, “Would be simpler/if English/and life/were logical.”
Her mother says, “Be grateful.”
Ha replies, “I’m trying.”
Lai’s debut novel portrays a young heroine in sparse verse but large in vivid images of a year’s heartbreak while changing cultures. “No one would believe me/but at times/I would choose/wartime in Saigon/over/peacetime in Alabama.”
Readers will feel the sorrow as Ha struggles with situations which the author admits “were inspired by my own memories .the daily challenges of starting over in a strange land.”
It's the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for young reader’s literature and Newbery Honor Book, 2012, from the American Library Association.
Lupita is the oldest of eight children as the family move from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to a small Texas town where Papi will have work. Here he can put a little savings in eight savings bank books tucked away with the green cards in Mami’s suitcase.
School is difficult for Lupita and she tries to fit in, “Stop trying to act like/them,” Mireya says accusingly/“You’re Mexican, just like the rest of us."
During Lupita’s freshman year of high school, her mother, Mami, is diagnosed with cancer. Lupita becomes caretaker for her siblings as her parents travel far away for surgery and chemotherapy. “Cancer has more than/invaded our home/It has closed the doors/behind itself/drawn the curtains/and locked us in for good.”
With no income, desperate times ensue and Lupita struggles to feed her siblings as the simple pleasures of childhood vanish.
Chemotherapy is not successful for Mami. “This morning/at the viewing/mi madre was as silent/as a statue: cold/and perfectly still/waxed in beauty/for eternity.”
While Lupita learns strength and resilience, the author truthfully portrays her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. She is a real teenager with talents and dreams, and after her mother’s death, leaps into the unknown to make a world for herself. “Someday my words will/take flight and claim the sky.”
The author's own dreams will pull readers into Lupita’s heartfelt story that is augmented with Spanish terms and references (a glossary is provided) which add to a true flavor of the culture.
It's the winner of the Pura Belpre Award honoring a Latino writer whose books affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience from the American Library Association.