I LOVED Thanhha Lai‘s Inside Out and Back Again, so I was exited to read her Listen, Slowly (2015, Harper). And though it pains me to say this, I did not love Listen, Slowly in the same way I loved Inside Out. I really liked the book’s premise but for some reason or another, I had a difficult time finishing the book. But I did.
What follows is a brief summary and some teaching ideas if you want to share Listen, Slowly with your middle school readers.
Here’s a quick recap. Mai, a Laguna girl, is stuck taking a vacation to Vietnam with her dad, a doctor will be performing surgeries for the less fortunate in Vietnam, and her grandmother, who is eager to return to her home country and learn about her husband’s final days during the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, Mai is not anxious to take this trip and leave her best friend Montana and crush behind. And she is definitely not pleased that her father’s work keeps him away from the city where her grandmother and her are staying. Not to mention the mosquitoes like her sweet blood just a little bit too much and the only friend she makes has a weird fascination with frogs. Slowly, however, Mai realizes the power of this trip – not only for her grandmother but for herself.
Although Listen, Slowly is not on my must-teach list, here are some ways I might teach the text:
(1) Focus on the language. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE the way Lai is able to tell stories in such poetic language. Whereas this is not a book-in-verse like Inside Out, it has some similarities in the ways in which some of the passages are written. This book can help students think about how to incorporate poetic language into prose. Too often our students are taught that writers must write in either poetry or prose, and this book helps younger writers understand how these forms can blend well together. I also enjoy how Lai inserts Vietnamese within the book. Younger writers can play around with including their ancestral language within writing pieces and discuss the effects of doing so.
(2) Consider the power of home. Mai is so tied to her home in Laguna that she fails to understand what she can learn about her ancestors’ home in Vietnam. Naive about the nature of her parents’ arrival to America (they want to protect her from the negative stories), Mai learns to appreciate a new home. What she thinks she knows about Vietnam from watching PBS special becomes much more real when she visits the country for herself. The tension Mai feels between her home in Laguna and her ancestral home in Vietnam lessens as the text continues. Here are some discussion questions I would ask students is What is home? Is it a place? Is it an identity? Or both?
(3) Have students read Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly as part of an author study unit. Whereas Inside Out is a book-in-verse, Listen, Slowly is written in prose. Home and identity function a bit differently in each text. Inside Out’s Ha travels from Vietnam to Alabama, and Listen, Slowly‘s Mai travels from California to Vietnam. The books serve as reflective narratives of two young girls’ geographical and personal journeys. Students can discuss the differences and similarities between these two texts and write their own stories of home.
I’d love to hear what you think of Listen, Slowly and how you have used the text in your classroom!