We are wrapping up our study of the 20th century (and I can’t decide if we should start the ancient world again after spring break, or just do lots of random literature read-alouds until August? Thoughts?) and read several more good books set in Asia. If you’re interested in the area or are studying the Korean and/or Vietnam Wars, these might be good choices.
Hannah (10) and I previously decided we didn’t really like verse novels, but Sarah (7) read Inside Out and Back Again and kept telling us how fantastic it is, so finally I read it and yes, it is fantastic! Hannah grudgingly agreed that it was all right, because she liked the author’s second book (below) better, but we all enjoyed talking about Inside Out.
The book tells the story of a girl whose family has to leave Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Emigrating to the US, the little girl faces all kind of challenges–language, customs, bullies–and yet bravely learns to stand up for herself. These are such great topics for elementary school kids, both in how to treat others who are different and how to behave when you yourself are different.
Even if you think you don’t like verse novels, I highly recommend you give Inside Out and Back Again a try.
Naturally, we wanted to read Thanha Lai’s second book, Listen, Slowly. The book is a novel rather than a verse novel (I think it was a sound move for Lai to branch out, but also brave since her verse novel won awards and it probably would have been easy to let herself be pigeonholed in that genre) and it is set in Vietnam, so you get more details about the country. I’m not sure which book I liked most.
Listen, Slowly follows two girls–one born in America to parents who fled Vietnam as children during the war, and one her cousin who grew up in Vietnam. As they come to understand each other, the reader learns a lot about Vietnamese culture and also gets an outside-in view of some of the silly parts of American tween culture in the process.
The book had some great discussion topics like how we can view our own culture, how to figure out if someone is really a true friend, why we respect our elders, and the like.
One caveat for younger readers: There is an episode in Listen, Slowly when the American tween advises the Vietnamese cousins that they should convert their underwear to thongs. I wound up having to explain to Hannah what thongs were, which is fine but I wasn’t expecting the question! She declared the whole idea “completely ridiculous” and later in the book the American tween character does too, but I thought I’d mention it as a heads up.
Seesaw Girl was our read-aloud choice about Korea. Although it’s set in the 1600s, there were a lot of great cultural references that I thought helped round out our understanding. We read other picture books and shorter chapter books set in Korea too, but really enjoyed Linda Sue Park’s story.
I loved the setting details Park included–sometimes children’s books are light there but Park did a great job of evoking both the historical and geographical settings.
The kids read several other books by Park and enjoyed them all. Jack (8) tried to teach himself Korean from some YouTube videos. Hannah asked for a hanbok for her birthday. We briefly looked up airfare to Korea (my family lived there when I was in 7th and 8th grades and I would love to visit again) but, to paraphrase Kermit the Frog from a non-Korea-related movie quote, “that would cost as much as an Oldsmobile” so we had to settle for going out to dinner at a Korean restaurant.
To be honest, Water Buffalo Days was a kind of disappointing read-aloud. I think it was partially because the kids had already read The Land I Lost by the same author so they knew more stories and details and they thought this was “a little kid version” and were not super enthused. As the person reading aloud, I wished the book would have had more setting details.
We didn’t hate it, but the consensus among the kids was that you should read The Land I Lost instead of Water Buffalo Days.
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