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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Listen, Slowly, written by Thanhha Lai. Harper, 2015. $21.00 ages 9 and up

"For decades, Ong's Brother has prepared meals out here on the three-prong clay "stove" that sits right in the middle of the cement porch. Maybe not the exact same stove, but I have a feeling the same design has been around since people discovered clay.  The stove, shaped like a big pot with three feet, has a bottom made of mesh wires where the fire is built. A pot or kettle sits on a rack on top ..."

I read this book a few months ago. It is a story of family, and a culture that was unfamiliar to me. I am so glad that I read it. I remember every scene. I read it because I admired Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again. This is a welcome companion to that first book.

Mia, and American-born child of Vietnamese descent, has a Vietnamese name (Mai) which she prefers not to use at school and with her friends. Mia has big plans for a summer spent at Laguna Beach with her best friend, imagining her first chance at romance. That plan is scuttled when her parents insist that she travel with her grandmother, Ba, to Vietnam for as long as it takes Ba to find out what really happened to her husband during the war. No choice is given, despite Mia's arguments.

Mai loves her grandmother; still, she is unsure how she will be able to care for her on such a long and arduous journey. She just hopes that they will find the information they are seeking in quick time. Then, she will be back at the beach to finish out her summer vacation.

Despite her heritage, Mai is an outsider when she gets to Vietnam. She is plagued by mosquitoes, has trouble digesting all of the foreign food. As she spends time with her grandmother and the extended family living there, she begins to see things differently. The land is quite beautiful, the food becomes more palatable, the family is entertaining and helpful. She starts to understand and speak this new language and to learn more than she has ever known about Vietnamese culture.

As she accompanies Ba to the meetings that may lead to information about her grandfather Ong, Mai learns to love her family's homeland through conversation and travel. With Anh Minh as their guide, she makes her way through the hustle and bustle of both Hanoi and Saigon, marvelling at the experiences and eventually wanting to prolong their visit.

Mai's voice is strong as she first shares her annoyance at being asked to change her summer plans,  then her growing interest and enthusiasm for all that she is learning. She shares her journey,
showing compassion for her grandmother, a growing love of family, their traditions and culture, and the resulting maturity that such an experience is sure to bring.

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