This book has a really pretty cover, which why I originally picked it up, but it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. It’s a novel in verse, which is relatively unusual, and as soon as I read the inside flap I was interested in the story as well.
Hà is a ten-year-old girl who moves from Saigon to Alabama in 1975, towards the end of the Vietnam War. Hà, her mother, and her three older brothers book passage in a ship to America, despite the fact that her father is still missing-in-action. After a harrowing journey on a crowded ship, they reach Guam, where they enter a camp for people hoping to go on to countries like France, Canada, and America. They must fill out forms saying which country they’re interested in moving to, and one of the most interesting moments of the story to me was when Hà’s mother is about to write “Paris” (because she has a distant relative there), but changes it to “America” at the last minute on the advice of a stranger in line with her. This tiny act changes the course of the family’s lives, and I found that moving.
Also poignant is the frustration Hà feels with the language barrier – she was a good student in Vietnam and now, because she moved to America without learning much English, she feels that her teachers see her as somewhat dim. When her teacher gets her to recite the alphabet and count to twenty, and then makes the class applaud her for it, Hà says:
unable to explain
I already learned
and how to purify
So this is
Hà and her family are treated with misplaced pity and outright malice, but also with great kindness, especially from their sponsor and neighbours. The novel is based on the author’s own experiences, and I think this lends the book a fleshed-out, specific, fully realized quality. The poetry is clear and touching and highly readable, and the book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and one of the two Newbery Honors in 2012. No matter how you might ordinarily feel about novels in verse, this one is well worth a look.
-Kayleigh, children’s staff