Thanhha Lai's Inside Out & Back Again took the kidlit world by storm a couple years ago, garnering both the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Anticipation for her second book, coming out this month, is high. In my opinion, Listen, Slowly is even better than Lai's first book.
Mai has plans for her summer. Plans that involve hanging out at the beach with her best friend, Montana, and Him-the boy she's had a crush on since he talked about a love poem in English class. Her plans most definitely do not involve accompanying her grandmother on a trip to Vietnam to discover information about her long missing grandfather. But try telling that to her do-gooder parents. Her father will be spending his summer in Vietnam doctoring needy children and can't be there to help Bà. Her mother is trying an important case and can't go to Vietnam at all. As the youngest cousin with no pressing academic plans, Mai is selected to go and make sure Bà is okay and has all she needs. Mai's goal is to get this excursion over with and fly home as soon as possible. As the days in Vietnam pass she is assaulted by mosquitos, heat, a rash of pimples, an attack of diarrhea from swallowing pond water, and not completely understanding the people around her all the time. But she also makes a new friend, learns more about her Bà and Ông, the war that tore her family apart, and the country whose rich history, culture and language runs through her California girl veins.
The rich setting and distinctive voice were my favorite aspects of Inside Out & Back Again. Lai's talent for both shine even brighter in Listen, Slowly. Mai's voice is perfect middle schooler. She is sassy, sarcastic, pouty, self-centered, sneaky, and argumentative. She is also kind, brave, loyal, and a little scared of the future and her place in it. She is a bit wrapped up in her own privilege too. Her parents want her to learn to give and be appreciative. She rolls her eyes a lot. I loved her to pieces. Upon reaching Vietnam, she learns a lot about family, friendship, and loyalty, but doesn't morph into a different person. She's still a snarky, sneaky, slightly awkward middle schooler. In Vietnam she makes a friend, one of her many cousins, named Út. Út loves frogs and being the bane of her mother's existence. The girls don't hit it off, but through many shared adventures and schemes become close friends.
The story is quiet and full of lush descriptions of Vietnam. Even though the plot is not full of heart-stopping actions and events, it is rich with the smaller events of life. Lai mostly manages to maintain a quick pace with these smaller events, and there is so much humor in the book. I laughed out loud several times.
The setting is incredibly well done. It is quite easy to feel completely immersed in the country of Vietnam. Lai's descriptive prose with told through the snarky tone of Mai's voice convey a beautiful country. The reader sees the large clogged cities with their noise and pollution and the slower life of the smaller villages. Lai manages to keep a light tone when discussing politics and the realities of a developing country, but still conveyes the scope and breadth of the issues. Her ability to bring things to a level middle graders can understand and appreciate is impressive. Part of what makes it so good, is that she doesn't condescend to her readers. The book is full of Vietnamese, some of it translated, some not. Context works well enough so the reader knows what is going on, and it just adds richness and authenticity to the setting. One of my favorites scenes is when Mai's translator is trying to teach her about how all the different accent marks and pronunciations change the meaning of the word Ba and Mai's comparing the noises to sheep: a frightened sheep, a serious sheep, a surprised sheep, a sheep falling over, and "I get to say 'whatever' while sounding like a constipated sheep." It's funny and conveys the complexities of the language perfectly.
Going with Mai and her grandmother on their journeys of discovery and closure is a privilege every reader will enjoy. I laughed and cried with them, and felt like I was a part of their family when I finished.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Harper Children's, at ALA Midwinter. Listen, Slowly goes on sale February 17.