Review: Listen, Slowly, by Thanhha Lai (2015)

Listen, Slowly coverThe pitch: Mai, or Mia as she’s known at school, is the thoroughly SoCal daughter of Vietnamese refugees. Her big beach plans for the summer are cut short when her dad announces a family trip to Vietnam to help her grandmother, Ba, say goodbye to her grandfather’s memory. All Mai can think about is wrapping things up so she can go home, but her grandma’s journey turns out to be unexpectedly complicated.

The review: This would not stop reminding me of Mitali Perkins’ (annoyingly out of print) Monsoon Summer: Californian daughter of Asian immigrants, dragged back to the country of their birth for the summer for a do-gooding enterprise, learns to connect with her culture. It’s a structure I wouldn’t at all mind reading more of. It would be easy for the main character to fall into caricatured American brattiness, but Mai doesn’t (nor does Monsoon Summer‘s Jazz). She’s selfish in an appropriately adolescent American way — she misses the comforts of home and worries about her crush moving on while she’s gone — but she never crosses the line. She knows, deep down, that her Ba’s journey is more important.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny at times: the language play as Mai improves her Vietnamese; her new friend Ut’s obsession with frogs; a certain incident involving thongs. Seeing both rural and urban Vietnam through Mai’s American eyes make it easier for American kids to connect with. I felt like I got into the routine of Mai’s narrowly circumscribed village life, but as soon as she ventured further afield, it became immediately obvious that she and I had no idea what was going on. It felt exactly like my experiences with international travel in that way.

My students mostly love Lai’s first book, Inside Out and Back Again. I think they’ll love this, too. Give it to readers 10-13 or so who want light, upbeat, contemporary friendship stories, whether or not they think they’re interested in the Vietnamese setting or immigrant family issues.

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