"How much do we know about those around us?" is the question posed by author Thanhha Lai in her Author's Note at the end of this poignant journey of a family from Saigon who flees South Vietnam as the war ends and escapes to a new life, a new world and a new sense of self. Told in free verse the story centers on a young girl named Ha who loves sweets and papaya and who knows how smart she is.
But her world is about to shatter as the bombs explode over Saigon and her mother makes the critical choice to flee all they know and reinvent themselves in a foreign land and a foreign culture. So, come along with Ha. Pack up your "one pair of pants, one shirt, three pairs of underwear...and one choice." Mother allows each child to choose one special thing to pack. Now, make your way to the port along with thousands of others with the same hope and the same fear and find a place on one of the navy ships packed like sardines on spaces defined by mats.
The family arrives in the United States, their ultimate destination, and must then wait to be sponsored. This journey leads them to Alabama and mistrust, fear, prejudice, bullying, and for Ha a loss of her personal power and identity. She is no longer smart in a world where she can barely pronounce the sounds of this new alphabet much less the words. This is a land where other children pull on her arm hairs to see if she's real and call her pancake because of the shape of her face and then ridicule Buddha....boo da.
The verse moves quickly as the scenes shift from place to place and from person to person. Would you learn to fly? Do you really know the story of the people around you. Have you met Ha? In a land of immigrants this is an important story with a voice like a scalpel that probes the heart in all of us. Ages 9-14 262 pages
The Tet New Year in 1975 and Ha becomes 10 years old. While Saigon is at the edge of invasion by North Vietnam forces, Ha tells, in poetry of her daily life, going to school, growing her papaya tree, and seeing her family go about its daily life.
This immigration story is representative of many groups who have fled war to build new lives in the U.S. Viewing the experience through the eyes of a 10 year old brings a perspective missing in the literature. The story is suitable for a wide variety of age levels. Great as self-selected reading as well as use as a classroom assigned reading.
The poetry reads easily and flows like prose. I am not generally excited by novels in poetry, but found this story of Ha’s family as they fled Saigon and resettled in Alabama held my attention. I read it in one setting. I highly recommend this book.
A Newbery Honor book.
Recommended by Barbara Fiehn EdD, Western Kentucky University, Kentucky USA