Inside Out and Back Again


Thanhhà Lai

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Inside Out and Back Again Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thanhhà Lai's Inside Out and Back Again. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thanhhà Lai

Inside Out and Back Again is partially autobiographical. Born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Lai fled the country with her mother and eight older brothers in 1975, when she was 10 years old. In interviews, she’s described the escape from Vietnam as “too easy”—the hardest part of leaving Vietnam, she’s said, was feeling at home when her family settled in Alabama. After high school, Lai went on to earn a degree in journalism from University of Texas, Austin. She worked for several years for a California newspaper, covering the local Vietnamese community, and then earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. Lai remained in New York after this, and today, she teaches composition at Parsons The New School for Design. Inside Out and Back Again was her first book, and it took her about 15 years to write. When she began writing, the story was an adult prose novel. The novel only really began to take shape when Lai decided to write about a child and use poetry, which in her author’s note she explains helps convey how rhythmic and musical the Vietnamese language is. After it was published in 2011, Inside Out and Back Again won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was named a Newbery Honor Book. As of 2021, Lai has written two more books for young adults, Butterfly Yellow and Listen, Slowly.
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Historical Context of Inside Out and Back Again

Hà and her family leave South Vietnam at the very end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In early March of that year, the CIA and Vietnamese intelligence agencies believed that the South Vietnamese forces could hold out against the Viet Cong (the North Vietnamese army) at least until 1976. However, they were wrong and were shocked at how fast the Viet Cong moved. Throughout the Vietnam War, Saigon had stayed relatively unaffected by violence, but as the Viet Cong got closer, people—Vietnamese and American alike—began to fear a bloodbath. Flights out of the city were totally full by the end of March. On April 29–30, the United States carried out Operation Frequent Wind, in which it evacuated nearly all Americans, both military and civilian, and thousands of South Vietnamese citizens. The Viet Cong took control of the city on April 30, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City and planting their flag at the presidential palace. This effectively ended the Vietnam War and resulted in the reunification of North and South Vietnam into a single country. In Vietnam, the day is celebrated as a day of liberation and unification—but among members of the Vietnamese diaspora who fled the country, it’s often known as The National Day of Shame or The National Day of Resentment. The thousands of people who left Vietnam fearing violence led to a major refugee crisis and resulted in the single largest influx of refugees in the United States (only the 2021 influx of Afghani refugees rivals it in numbers).

Other Books Related to Inside Out and Back Again

Thannhà Lai has written two other novels for young adults that take place around the same time period and focus on Vietnamese refugees (or would-be refugees): Listen, Slowly and Butterfly Yellow. There are a number of verse novels about immigrants, including The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Good Braider by Terry Farish, and Aida Salazar’s Land of the Cranes. Contemporary verse novels have their roots in ancient epics, such as the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the most famous early modern verse novels was Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, which was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832. 
Key Facts about Inside Out and Back Again
  • Full Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • When Written: 1995–2010
  • Where Written: New York City, New York
  • When Published: 2011
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Young Adult Novel, Verse Novel
  • Setting: South Vietnam and Alabama, 1975–1976
  • Climax: Vu Lee rescues Hà from Pink Boy.
  • Antagonist: Pink Boy
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Inside Out and Back Again

What’s in a Name. Like Hà in the novel, Thannhà Lai went by Hà as a child, and her classmates would mock her by saying, “ha, ha, ha.” The name Thannhà is her combined first and middle names, and in interviews she’s framed deciding to go by this name as a punishment for her bullies, since it makes pronouncing her name even more complicated.