Listen, Slowly

In Listen, Slowly, Newbery Honor author and National Book Award winner Thanhhà Lai (Inside Out and Back Again) describes Vietnam through the eyes of 12-year-old Mai Le, who visits her ancestral home for the first time. In this moving story, Mai accompanies Bà, her paternal grandmother, on a pilgrimage to discover what happened to her husband, deemed MIA during the Vietnam War.

Mai's and Bà's relationship, always close, deepens during this cathartic mission. Mai starts out as a self-involved teen, resentful of leaving her bikini-clad friends in Laguna Beach--and especially wary of leaving her best friend, Montana, famous for stealing other girls' boyfriends, alone with her secret crush. Lai smoothly integrates facts about what happened to the people of Vietnam without discussing the violence: the sights, sounds and smells, the wonderful foods and time-proven remedies (for parasites and acne), and the extraordinary sense of community and hospitality. Readers will identify with Mia's insightful and humorous reactions to alien traditions ("Is there one architect for the whole country?" she wonders) and language barriers, and their appreciation will grow along with Mia's as she comes to value how the neighbors band together to share meals and chores, and their sensitivity to Bà's loss in a nation long accustomed to occupation. The kindness and warmth the villagers show to Bà stand in stark relief to Mai's friendship with Montana.

This is a love story on many levels, between granddaughter and grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, and for the homeland one carries within. Details Lai plants early on add up to a powerful finish. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

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