Every 12-year-old has great plans for summertime.  Mai, from Laguna Beach, California, is no exception.  Her plans derail, however, when her father tells her that she’ll be accompanying her grandmother, Bà, to Việt Nam in search of decisive news about what happened to her grandfather during the war.

Mai (known as Mia to her friends in California) is not excited about the journey.  Although she used to have language lessons as a kid, she worries that the journey will be tough because of the language gap.  Mai soon learns that “Việt Nam is a place of contrasts, either nothing happens or everything happens” as the search for her grandfather’s whereabouts before his death start to simmer.

Mai adjusts to her surroundings and because she is able to do this, she opens up to new experiences with language, food, and friends.  She also realizes that “No one has secrets in Việt Nam” and truly becomes a part of the community where her grandmother once lived.

Lai’s first novel, Inside Out and Back Again, won the National Book Award.  This follow-up novel takes a different approach and is written in narrative instead of the verse novel format.  The result is a striking combination of vibrant visuals and sounds that enable the reader to experience the land of Việt Nam from afar.

Ultimately, this is a story about finding the things that matter in life.  Reading the book will not only let the reader see this message, but it will encourage contemplation about what family and true friendship mean as well.

NPR Story on Lai’s book: