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A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, 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. 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.
My name on the cover has changed from Thanhha Lai to Thanhhà Lại, with diacritical marks added to vowels to direct tone. These pesky, yet essential, little marks are featured prominently in Listen, Slowly.
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New York Times Book Review, by Cathryn M. Mercier Literature in English for children and young adults offers few books about Vietnam and even fewer about the Vietnam War. Walter Dean Myers’s 1988 novel “Fallen Angels” explored the costs borne by American soldiers sent to Vietnam with little knowledge about where they were and less about why they were there. The book deglorified war, exposing the sharp irony of sending young men, not yet old enough to vote and often marginalized by race or socioeconomic status, to defend ideals of democracy. They fought a war filled with “hours of boredom, seconds of terror”; if they came home again, it was not as angel warriors, but as fallen angels.
Thanhha Lai’s first book, “Inside Out and Back Again,” published in 2011 and opening in 1975 just outside Saigon, chronicled another fall from innocence. Ha, her protagonist, hears “in the distance / bombs / explode like thunder” as “slashes lighten the sky” and “gunfire / falls like rain.” Although Ha does not remember her father, who has been on military dispatch for nine of her 10 years, she seems safely embedded in close circles of family and friends. Ha’s free-verse narration captures the candor of a trusting child who ponders birthdays, makes school friends and monitors her ripening papaya, and it was the right form to show how war fractures her childhood. Just as the papaya’s “black seeds spill / like clusters of eyes, / wet and crying” when it’s cut too soon, so is Ha’s life hewed. The novel, which won a 2011 National Book Award and was a 2012 Newbery Honor book, depicts Ha’s flight from Vietnam as Saigon falls; her crossing to the United States; and the challenges, hostilities and promises of starting anew in Alabama.
Lai’s newest novel, “Listen, Slowly,” introduces another Vietnamese family marked by war. It skips the refugee years of cultural displacement and rebuilding to center on the family’s first American-born generation. Although 12-year-old Mai’s parents have given her a bicultural name — at school she is Mia — she insists on a “unicultural” identity. She plans to spend the summer hanging out in Laguna Beach with her best friend, maybe even having her first romance. After all, she thinks, given her academic excellence and stellar extracurriculars, doesn’t she deserve some unfettered time?
Her parents have something more constructive in mind: Mai will accompany her grandmother, Ba, to Vietnam. Now 79, Ba has new information about the fate of her cherished husband, who went missing during the war. Mai unwillingly starts her journey, wondering how she, still dependent on her parents, can possibly be a reliable companion to her frail grandmother. She counts the days until she can resume her normal American life.
Initially, Mai’s first-person narration makes her sound like an overindulged tween. Yet her voice also reveals a tender attentiveness that counters her egocentrism. She has a soft spot for Ba, and cherishes her smile: “Lines spread like outstretched fingers at the corners of her eyes and tiny spears circle her mouth the way I used to draw the sun’s rays.”
Mai enters Vietnam as an outsider, irritated by the mosquitoes who love her sugary American blood and wary of her intolerant stomach. She becomes an insider drawn to the land, allured by savory pho broth, and deciding to stay just a bit longer. As Ba traces her lost love through the homeland they shared, Mai discovers the indelible lines of her Vietnamese heritage, including the refugee history from which her parents have sheltered her. With her stubborn, frog-loving, braces-wearing new friend, Ut, and her guide, Anh Minh, who speaks English with a Texas accent, she navigates not only the chaotic streets and markets of Saigon and Hanoi, but also the network of relationships that have sustained the country. Their escapades surpass any excitement Laguna Beach once promised. As Mai listens to others, she acquires new language skills. As she watches others, she studies the culture and gains perspective on her own. As she laughs with others, she learns to laugh at herself.
Lai inserts Ba’s lyrical voice selectively into Mai’s story. These heart-stopping passages further shift Mai’s position from outsider to insider to, finally, truly bicultural, just as “Listen, Slowly” invites readers to see Vietnam from the inside out — and back again.
Booklist (starred review) Twelve-year-old Vietnamese-American Mai is a Laguna Beach girl who can’t wait to spend her summer at the beach getting to know HIM, the boy on whom she has a major crush. Imagine her horror, then, when her parents announce that she must, instead, travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who will search for clues to the fate of her husband who disappeared during what Mai thinks of as “THE WAR.” It’ll be a chance to connect with her roots, her father tells her; to which she acidly thinks, “Yeah, right . . .They’re his roots, not mine.” In fact, she admits, most of what she knows about Vietnam comes from PBS. Set to hate it in Vietnam, Mai is at first selfish and solipsistic, finding life there to be “one body-crushing, mustdo, crowd-throbbing, mind-heavy event after another.” Gradually, however, she begins to change as she gets to know her bewilderingly large extended family and makes a friend of a distant cousin. Lai does a superb job of creating a memorable setting and populating it with fully developed, complex characters. Gracefully written and enriched by apposite figures of speech, Listen, Slowly is a superb, sometimes humorous, always thought-provoking coming-of-age story.
High-Demand Hot List: Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (2011) racked up the honors from both Newbery and National Book Award committees, and it also landed on the New York Times best-seller list, so her latest is sure to generate widespread anticipation. — Michael Cart
School Library Journal (starred review) The summer before she turns 13, Mai is planning to spend her time going to the beach and finally talking to her secret crush. She’s less than thrilled when her parents make her escort her grandmother to Vietnam instead. New information may have surfaced about her long lost grandfather, who disappeared over 40 years ago in “THE WAR.” Mai doesn’t know the culture or speak the language, and everything she knows about Vietnam is from a PBS documentary on the Fall of Saigon. While her parents are excited for her to learn more about her roots, the teen doesn’t even know the details of her own parents’ escape because “random roots are encouraged, but specific roots are off-limits.” Stuck in a village with limited internet access, a sulky Mai slowly makes friends due to lack of better things to do, and bonds with her grandmother, who she was very close to as a small child. Mai’s character growth is slow and believable, coming in small increments and occasionally backsliding. The sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam’s cities and villages come alive on the page, without overwhelming a story filled with a summers-worth of touching and hilarious moments, grand adventure, and lazy afternoons. With a contemporary time setting, this compelling novel shows the lingering effects of war through generations and how the secrets our parents keep can shape us. –Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington County Public Libraries, VA
Publisher Weekly (starred review) All high-achieving 12-year-old Mai wants is to hang out at home in Laguna Beach with her best friend and her crush-that-shall-not-be-named: “This is the summer I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” she explains. Instead, she is forced to accompany her father and her grandmother (Bà) to Vietnam to determine whether her grandfather (Ông) might still be alive. (He disappeared during “THE WAR,” as Mai thinks of it, and has long been presumed dead.) Mai’s self-interested annoyance gives way to fascination as she becomes swept up in her Vietnamese heritage, helps find out what happened to Ông, befriends a headstrong girl named Út, and enjoys a deepening relationship with Bà. As she did in her National Book Award–winning Inside Out & Back Again, Lai offers a memorable heroine and cultural journey—ones that are clever near-opposites of those in that book, as Lai trades verse for prose and an immigrant’s story for one of a girl fully immersed in American culture. The story capably stands on its own, yet considered alongside Inside Out, it’s all the more rewarding. Ages 8–12.