Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại
“They’re his roots, not mine,” Mia insists as she seethes on a flight bound to Vietnam with her father. “I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science and chess.” [I’d claim this kid any time, too!]
But instead of resting on her laurels, least of all relaxing that grand brain over summer vacation, Mia’s parents are forcing her to accompany her grandmother and father back to the ancestral homeland. “[M]ost of what I know about Vietnam comes from PBS,” she admits. But no documentary will reveal what happened to Mia’s grandfather during the Vietnam War, and now a detective has contacted her family with the hope that he might even be alive. What if that were true …?
While Mia might look like her Vietnamese relatives, she barely speaks the same language. She is – who wouldn’t be? – more than okay with the local food, but getting to know her extended family is no small feat. Being that Laguna Beach-girl-with-so-much-spunk will initially get her in more trouble than not – the thong incident is just so wrong, although you can’t help but laugh, oh no! – but eventually, her ingenuity and courage will also help her and her family towards much-needed understanding. Somewhere along the way, Mia will learn to “listen, slowly,” even when she can’t comprehend every word.
The tone of Listen, Thanhhà Lại’s follow-up to her 2011 National Book Award-ed debut, Inside Out & Back Again, couldn’t be more different. While Inside is an evocative novel-in-verse about a 10-year-old surviving the fall of Saigon and beginning a new life in an intolerant new country, Listen is a chatty, light, fast read – with a few poignant moments gently added – about cultural exploration with 21st-century, tween attitude (audible listeners: narrator Lulu Lam does spot-on spunk!). Inside‘s Hà struggles to become American; decades later, Mia is quintessentially American, almost too much so for her relatives on the other side of the world. What a difference a single generation can make …
Similarly, what a difference a major award can make: the cover of Inside shows Lại’s name without diacriticals, as simply Thannha Lai, almost as if erasing any markings that might make the name seem too foreign. Now that Lại is a bona-fide literary celebrity with her NBA-stamp-of-approval, her second cover reveals her fully ‘dressed’ name with diacriticals reclaimed: Thanhhà Lại. Interesting, no?
Whichever Lại title you choose first, know that reading both books together is an excellent choice for closing that generation gap – in oh so many ways.
Readers: Middle Grade