The Beautiful Journey of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly

BookendsLynn: The sassy, courageous heroine of Thanhhà Lai’s Newbery Honor book Inside Out & Back Again (2011) won a lot of hearts, including mine. I was excited to hear about her new book, Listen, Slowly (2015), and now having read it I can tell you it’s worth getting excited about. This story is told in prose instead of verse, but Lai’s writing is just as exquisite in this format. Her characters vividly come to life and the evocative sensory images transport the reader right into the setting.

Lai’s writing is like an impressionist painting, made up of
individual details that when seen together form a beautiful picture.

Listen, SlowlyLai shifts directions here and tells the story of 12-year-old Mai, a self-described Laguna Beach girl, who, under duress, accompanies her grandmother to Vietnam to try to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance during “THE WAR.” Mai knows some of the stories of her family’s flight to the United States, but she thinks of herself as American and has no interest in her Vietnamese roots. She had been looking forward to a summer on the beach with sightings of HIM. Instead, she is shoved on a plane to a place where it is so hot she feels like she is being “barbecued alive.”

Mai’s self-absorbed, often hilariously snarky voice is so authentic I wanted to shake her, and Lai does a terrific job of showing Mai’s gradual and believable growth through the course of her experiences. Lai’s writing is like an impressionist painting, made up of individual details that when seen together form a beautiful picture. I love how each of those dots is made up of Mai’s observations, impressions, and revelations, but the luminous whole of this story is something truly special.

Cindy: Accepting big change is never easy, whether it is facing truths from long ago or dealing with a current situation. Mai wants to undo her big change and return back to California, and is quite impatient with her grandmother who is slowly, ever so slowly, coming to terms with the big loss of her husband decades ago. While Mai deals with the heat, the voracious mosquitoes that love her sweet blood, mandatory afternoon naps, and the longing to be home, she realizes that some truths are universal: “I guess parents embarrass their children everywhere in the world.”

Children’s insolence is not tolerated in Mai’s family or culture, but she finds tiny ways to revolt against her circumstances. Well, she tries, but she is not wholly successful. Her mother is in the practice of giving Mai daily SAT vocabulary words to learn and use, and she’s not going to let a few time zones and thousands of miles slow her down. She texts a new word each day along with her messages to Mai. But Mai decides she doesn’t have to play along while she’s away:

That’s it. I’m on an SAT revolt, erasing all five-dollar words from my cobwebby mind. Expunged, good-bye. Wait, is expunge an SAT word? Probably. Rewind. How about zapped? Zapped, good-bye. It’ll kill mom when I come back espousing the vocabulary of a middle schooler, which I am. Wait, is espouse SAT? I’m going to have to be vigilant. Vigilant? OMG, Mom has completely warped me.

I read this book slowly. Listening slowly as the title suggests. I took in the setting, the foods, the language, the humor, the longing, and the acceptance. Lai paints a beautiful journey that readers won’t soon forget.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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