Inside Out & Back Again

In my previous post about how I got into publishing, I mentioned a particular book that I’ve had the pleasure of working on called Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. We often refer to this title as “our little engine that could” as it falls into the category of “off the beaten path” when one considers that it’s a middle-grade historical novel written in verse. I started at Harper right around the on-sale date of Inside Out and though it wasn’t initially reassigned to me (I later requested to take it over), I heard the buzz around the house grow as it collected starred review after starred review (FOUR total), and then whispers of awards talk started trickling in. Most of the time, we in publishing try to stay mum about awards discussions and probabilities lest we put a jinx on it (call us superstitious).  In this case, however, our highly guarded hopes were rewarded when Thanhha received the National Book Award and then a few months later a Newbery Honor. To top it off, her book then hit the New York Times bestseller list—the final feat completing what I like to call the children’s lit version of the “Triple Crown.”

Working with Thanhha has been an absolute joy. She is everything a publicist could dream of: responsive, gracious, kind, funny, and all of those other marvelous traits you’d want in any friend. Perhaps being an Asian-American myself, I felt a certain connection with Thanhha, and though my own history is a far-cry from her experiences, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride in all that Thanhha and her heroine Hà accomplished. I’ve included one of my favorite poems from the book below, because it hits so close to home. For me, even growing up in a place as diverse as Brooklyn, there was always that feeling lingering somewhere just below the surface of being “medium.”

Black and White and Yellow and Red

The bell rings.
Everyone stands.
I stand.

They line up;
so do I.

Down a hall.
Turn left.
Take a tray.
Receive food.

On one side
of the bright, noisy room,
light skin.
Other side,
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
to them
someone medium
would show up.

I don’t know where to sit
any more than
I know how to eat
the pink sausage
snuggled inside bread
shaped like a corncob
smeared with sauces
yellow and red.

I think
they are making fun
of the Vietnamese flag
until I remember
no one here likely knows
that flag’s colors.

I put down the tray
and wait
in the hallway.

September 2
11:30 a.m.

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