By Thanhhà Lại
Available now from HarperCollins
Thanhhà Lại's second novel is also her first novel in prose. INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN announced her presence on the children's lit scene in a big way, winning both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. LISTEN, SLOWLY makes it clear that her debut was no fluke.
Mai is eagerly anticipating her summer with her best friend and crush, excited that at twelve, she's almost a teenager. But when a detective brings news that her Ong (grandfather) might be alive, she finds herself accompanying her grandmother to a small village in Vietnam for the summer. Mai is a bit of a whiner at this point, but no more than any kid giving up summer in the beach for summer with access to dial-up if you go to the local cafe. Worse, she only kinda sorta speaks the language.
I loved Mai's gentle growth throughout the novel. The first real connection she makes is easy, with a teen guy who is an exchange student in Houston during the school year and who can speak English with her. As she opens up, she makes more friends and learns more about the lives of the people around her. (And gets some good advice regarding using sunscreen not made for your face on your face.) She also becomes interested in the mystery of her grandfather, tracking just what happened to him after he escaped capture during the Vietnam War.
Thanhhà Lại develops her scenes sensually, with both pleasant and unpleasant details. There are itchy bug bites and glowing frogs and squelching mud. Mai makes visits to major cities as well, finding that life there is very different and she's equally unprepared for getting around. I also liked how she dealt with Mai's frustration that her family wants her to know more about her roots, but refuses to talk about why and how they emigrated. Mai's connections to her specific and unspecific roots both feel authentic.
LISTEN, SLOWLY is a book that makes you want to listen, slowly. It has family secrets and cross-cultural barriers and female friendship and all sorts of good stuff. It has a focus on language, getting it right, translating for others, and learning how to speak it so those less proficient can understand. Most of all, it has great writing. It's not a long read, aimed at fourth grade or so, but it is one that has enough depth for older readers too.