Getting Loudouners on the same page isn’t always easy. But sometimes all it takes is a good book.
Around the county, readers from 10 to 100 are digging into Thanhha Lai’s poignant and funny novel, “Inside Out and Back Again,” as part of Loudoun County Public Library’s 1book 1community program.
Now in its 14th year, the program is designed to promote discovery and conversation by offering free paperbacks and e-book downloads of a single novel to the entire community and providing lots of opportunities for group discussion. Lai will visit Loudoun Wednesday, Nov. 8, to share her story and discuss the book as part of a giant book club meeting.
Lai’s image-rich novel in verse is based on the story of her own escape from Vietnam to Alabama in 1975. The novel follows a year in the life of the main character, 10-year-old Hà, and her family’s escape from wartime Saigon to Alabama. The award-winning young adult novel came about after Lai’s unsuccessful attempt to write an adult novel in what she calls “a 15-year experiment that went nowhere.” That first draft included dozens of characters and spanned centuries, but Lai tapped into the magic of language by simplifying and condensing her story into a series of prose poems spanning just one year.
The inspiration came during a visit to a New York City playground with her young daughter.
“I’m sitting there and all these images came back to me in fragments, in Vietnamese English, in this weird mix,” Lai said. “I decided I’m just going to tell my story—one character in one year and use this language I thought I had invented—the prose poem. And it’s like the way the character is thinking.”
The novel, published in 2011, was an instant hit and went on to be named a Newbery Honor Book and to win the prestigious National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Lai’s prose poems make for a short, but very rich read, accessible to both adults and young readers. The novel’s accessibility and timeliness made it the perfect choice for this year’s community read-along, said Susan VanEpps, division manager for programming and community engagement for Loudoun County Public Library.
The 1book 1community program, launched in 2004, was the brainchild of VanEpps’ predecessor, Linda Holtslander, the fairy godmother of community engagement at Loudoun’s library system who retired last year. The program is funded through an outreach fund created by a donation from the late Loudoun-based philanthropist Irwin Uran in 1999.
At the beginning of each year, a committee of librarians narrows the field from about 30 nominations and makes a selection for that fall’s read-along.
“Some of the things they look for are a book that appeals to a wide range of readers from different backgrounds, a book that can connect with different age groups, something that’s a manageable length that people can read in a reasonable amount of time,” VanEpps said.
“Inside Out” had universal support this year.
“It makes it kind of a nice lovely read. You can sit down and read it in one sitting,” VanEpps said. “It’s a beautiful story. It’s got some funny parts, it’s got some sad parts. It’s so uplifting. The committee really liked all of that.”
Accessibility for all ages is a big asset for Belmont Ridge Middle School librarians Annette Kessler and Linda Gwinn-Casey, who said the committee’s selection of middle school-appropriate books in recent years has allowed them to bring 1book 1community to their school in very meaningful ways. The school has jumped into the program with both feet—going way beyond encouraging students to read and discuss the book.
“We feel that literature can teach people about the world around them and serve as a powerful platform for larger issues and discussion,” Gwinn-Casey said. “It really enriches our school. We know that the library is the heartbeat of the school and the community.”
The librarians are not only promoting the book in the school library and making copies available to classroom teachers in Belmont Ridge’s English department, they’re also developing interactive and community service events to tie in with the program. The school is organizing an art and literary museum of sensory poetry from teachers and students with a connection to family heritage. Students will also collect books and blankets for Loudoun-based Mobile Hope and will fundraise for Lai’s Viet Kids nonprofit, which buys bicycles for children in rural Vietnam, throughout October.
Lai, who is working on her third novel, will donate her speaker’s fee for her Nov. 8 talk at Ashburn’s Briar Woods High School to her nonprofit.
Attorney Chuong Nguyen, the Dulles District representative on the Loudoun Library Board of Trustees, will moderate the discussion. Nguyen, who immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 5 in 1978, said his own story has lots of parallels with Lai’s. Nguyen’s father was a physician practicing with the South Vietnamese Army, and like Hà’s father in the novel, was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese government.
“It’s a great story and something that needs to be heard in a very personal way,” Nguyen said. “This is very much a forum for her and for the audience to interact with her and really enjoy her story.”
And while the book tells the singular story of one girl’s journey, there are universal themes that will hit home with middle schoolers and grown-ups alike, especially in the details of Hà’s struggles to fit in in her Alabama elementary school, where she’s the object of bullying and hides in a bathroom to avoid her school’s chaotic and segregated lunchroom.
“You don’t have to be a refugee to be eating lunch in the bathroom,” Lai said with a laugh.
“Hà is a 10-year-old girl. I have a 10-year-old girl,” VanEpps said. “It’s very universal. … There are parts of the book that will resonate with everybody who reads it.”
Free copies of “Inside Out and Back Again” are available at Loudoun County Public Library branches, but because of the book’s popularity, patrons are encouraged to download the novel for free at lcpl.overdrive.com.
Thanhha Lai will discuss her novel at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn. The event is free and open to the public. The library system has also planned a series of smaller book clubs at branches around the county throughout October and November. For more information, go to library.loudoun.gov/1book.