Saturday, November 19, 2011

From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
National Book Award 2011

In 1975, young Ha and her family are scraping by in Saigon, waiting for her father, a naval officer, to return. When the family learns that South Vietnam will soon fall to the communists, however, Ha's mother makes the difficult choice to flee. Crammed onto a boat with hundreds of other families, Ha and her family decide to go to America, where they are sponsored by a man in Alabama.

While the book is divided into thematic sections -- Saigon, the boat, and America -- the American section is definitely the longest and one of the more emotional sections, as Lai details Ha's attempts to fit in at school and in the community. Aside from a neighbor who happens to be a retired teacher who helps Ha with her English, there are few likeable American characters. It is unclear if this was intentional in order for readers to better sympathize with the Vietnamese protagonists or if it is factual, as Ms. Lai based a number of events on her own childhood in the South.

Given the subject matter, I had expected the book to be far more emotional. Perhaps it is because the verse prevents any major character depth or analysis, but I felt rather disconnected throughout its duration. I'm glad that there is a children's book about the fall of Saigon written through the POV of a Vietnamese child, but I feel like this book, at least, is more focused on America and assimilation. It's a worthy attempt, but it falls short.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mowgli Meets Dracula and the Wolfman

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Newbery Medal 2009, Carnegie Medal 2010

I first read this book back in October of 2009, long before I had this blog. Recently, I was assigned the audiobook version for a children's resources class, hence my post. While I will focus primarily on the plot and characters, I'd also like to speak a little of the book versus the audio version.

In the opening pages, the parents and sister of the main character (a baby boy) are murdered by the Man Jack, while the baby manages to escape to a nearby cemetery where he is promptly adopted by the Owenses, a married couple who died sometime in the 1800's. While the book chronicles the life of the boy (christened Nobody "Bod" Owens) through adolescence and his eventual confrontation with the Man Jack, the manner in which it is written is more akin to a series of vignettes than a traditional novel.

There have been complaints by some that the characters who populate the book, being ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc., are inappropriate for the young readers at whom the novel is directed. However, it should be pointed out that these characters are all friends, teachers, and mentors to our young protagonist and that the entire work is also modeled upon The Jungle Books, in which a young boy is raised in the jungle by animals. Just as some animals intended Mowgli harm, but the majority looked after him, the majority of the supernatural characters here have Bod's best interests in mind.

As has come to be expected, Mr. Gaiman's writing is a brilliant marriage of Kipling's stories and characters with a modern setting and Mr. Gaiman's trademark wit. Regarding the audiobook, which is narrated by Mr. Gaiman, it has some nice additions, such as performances by Bela Fleck, and being read by the author himself provides perhaps the truest reading of the material. I personally prefer reading the book myself, however, as I found my attention wandering while listening to the audiobook for too long.

I read a year or two ago that a book focusing on Silas, Bod's mentor and the Bagheera character, was in the works, but I've not heard anything more about it. While I would certainly enjoy returning to Bod's world, this installment works perfectly on its own.

Grade: A