by Thanhha Lai
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
This remarkable novel from Thanhha Lại, New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award-winning and Newbery Honor Book Inside Out & Back Again, follows a young girl as she learns the true meaning of family.
A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.
Perfect for fans of Rita Williams-Garcia and Linda Sue Park, Listen, Slowly is an irresistibly charming and emotionally poignant tale about a girl who discovers that home and culture, family and friends, can all mean different things.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
When I saw that Thanhha Lai was writing a new book, I was excited. I really enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again, her middle-grade verse novel. I was expecting the same sort of thing here, so I was a bit disappointed when I started to read Listen, Slowly and realized that it was not a verse novel. That disappointment was short-lived, however, because Mai's story is a good one... and I may have enjoyed it even more than the story in Inside Out & Back Again.
Please, dear author, I want some more...
The plot of this story is fairly simple: a twelve-year-old girl accompanies her grandmother on a trip to Vietnam so that the latter can get some closure on the disappearance of her husband during the war. The strength of the novel is not in its plot, however: it's in the characters and the vivid descriptions of life in present-day Vietnam. Mai is very much a fish out of water at the beginning of the book. She doesn't want to be there. She'd rather be back at home in Laguna Beach, hanging out with her best friend and flirting with her crush (whom she refers to throughout most of the book as HIM). Even though she's the offspring of two Vietnamese parents, she barely speaks the language and she's not that familiar with the customs of her ancestral home. Nor is she prepared for the sights, sounds, smells, and temperature of the country. These are all described in vivid detail, bringing the reader on a journey to a part of the world that's not often depicted in books for younger readers.
Some of the episodes in the story are poignant, some are interesting, and some are downright amusing. When Mai convinces the other village girls that everyone in America wears thong underwear, it leads to a couple of pretty funny scenes. Likewise, after Mai falls into a local pond and catches a parasite, the descriptions of her relatives' intense interest in her diarrhea are both mortifying and amusing. "I never have a second alone," she says at one point, which underscores the intense community surroundings that might seem foreign to those not familiar with the culture.
The secondary characters are good, too. Bà, Mai's grandmother, is a sweet old lady, and Mai obviously cares for her very deeply (despite all the complaining she does about having to participate in the trip). Anh Minh, whom Mai calls her "personal translator", is a boy who's just a bit older, who studies in America, and who speaks English with a Texas twang that's spelled out on the pages. Út is one of Mai's cousins (I think... she refers to many of these folks as her "maybe-relatives", as she assumes she's somehow related to them all). She has a pet frog, a buzz cut, and an attitude, but despite being Mai's opposite she somehow ends up being her friend. The weakest characters in the book are probably Mai's parents, and that's because they're barely in the story: her father is a doctor helping patients in remote parts of the country and her mother is a lawyer back in California.
It's all a matter of taste...
There wasn't really a lot I didn't like about this book. While it wasn't the sort of story I'm usually drawn to, I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Let's get technical...
In a verse novel, you can get away with a lot more, grammar-wise, than you can if you're writing in straight prose. There were a few instances of tense slip-ups and some misplaced words that didn't seem to make a lot of sense in context. There were also a number of comma splices, and I wasn't sure if they were intentional or not. However, Mai was supposedly the type of kid who dutifully memorized all the SAT words her mom drilled at her, so I would've expected her grammar to be a little bit better than it was.
The other issue I had with this book was no fault of the author, but it was still annoying. The Vietnamese language is full of diacritical marks... and the EPUB format handled these terribly, inserting a question mark in place of most of these characters. It was pretty distracting.
Finally, I just have to mention the cover. It's so pretty! Thanhha Lai has really lucked out in the cover department. Both this book and Inside Out & Back Again have such lovely covers.
Overall, this is a really strong middle-grade book with a nice story, strong characters, and amazing descriptions that are sure to transport the reader to another place. I'd definitely recommend this one.
I pick up my chopsticks and deliver a bamboo shoot to my mouth. Everyone stops eating. Someone says, "Look, look at her using chopsticks. Just like a Vietnamese girl!"
What does she think I do at home? Eat rice with my fist?
Someone else asks, "Are you obedient?"
It's so annoying when people ask questions with preconceived answers. The man should just come out and say, "I expect you to listen to your parents or you'll shame every ancestor going back four thousand years of Vietnamese history." No pressure. Like any kid is going to admit out loud, "I just pretend to listen."
Overall Rating: 4.13 out of 5 ladybugs