by Thanhha Lai
This book in verse won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Newbery Honor Award. It's about Ha, who moves from Siagon to Alabama with her family in 1975 and follows her transitional year, from Tet (February one year) to Tet (January the next year).
The sparseness of the text coupled with the well-written verse makes for an astoundingly fast read, but to read too quickly is to do a disservice to the story, the emotion, and the importance of an immigrant narrative that rings as true today as it did in the time the story is set.
Ha's family is hosted to come to the U.S. through a Southern church, which puts certain expectations on their behaviors and customs. She struggles at school and within the family. Foods are unfamiliar, friends are hard to make, a new language is challenging, and growing up must still continue, even in the strangeness of a new place.
An author's note places the text as mostly autobiographical. I'm grateful to her for sharing her experiences in a book accessible by very young people (the book is meant for 8-12 year olds). As a Gen-Xer, I didn't get very much information in school about the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) because it was, I think, too recent and painful for my teachers to take on. Books like these help me fill in those blanks, and I hope they help the next generation understand a bit more the history of that amazing country, its people, and the war. (I've travelled there - for a month in 2000 - and it is truly a beautiful place, largely rebuilt since the 70s, and filled with a young population.)
Spend time with this book. It's very worth the time, as evidenced by the awards, but even without them, the text stands on its own as beautifully well-written and thoughtful.