Can you call an author who’s just published her second book a master? In the case of Thanhha Lai, I think so.
Lai’s first novel, Inside Out and Back Again, won a Newbery Honor and a National Book Award. In her sophomore effort, Lai returns to exploring the Vietnamese-American experience, this time through the eyes of Mai––AKA Mia––who’s not too happy to be dragged along on her grandmother’s trip to Vietnam.
Listen, Slowly is fertile ground for kidlit writers honing their craft, and really just a darn good read: gorgeous, emotional, funny, and real. Here’s what I took away from this lovely book.
1. Forget likable––go for authentic.
The novel opens with Mai complaining about her dad, “Dr. Do Gooder,” and how he’s obsessed with helping Vietnamese kids suffering hand burns and cleft palates. “Guilt, very big in this family,” she says––but makes it clear she’d rather be paddle-boarding or enjoying a mango smoothie back home at Laguna Beach.
Mai is mad that she has to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam on a mission to find out what happened to her grandfather, who’s been MIA since the war. She’s mad that her dad’s more focused on his patients than her. She’s obsessed with a guy she’s barely spoken to, and would rather be back at the beach getting to know him than getting to know her extended family in Vietnam.
Basically? Mai’s a very typical twelve-year-old. She may not always be likable, but she’s real. Lai doesn’t shy away from Mai’s imperfections. By showing her rougher, more selfish side, Lai gives Mai plenty of space to grow––and also makes her an authentic, believable character, flaws and all.
2. Use all the senses for a full, textured picture of your setting and characters.
Lai has a knack for description. She does a lot with a little, and doesn’t stop at sight and sound. Reminding us that it takes all the senses to really make a place come alive, Lai’s descriptions include tastes delicious and disgusting; textures, like the hard floor Mai sleeps on in Vietnam and the slippery, bulging mass of her new friend’s pet frog; and scents, like the “mellow smoothness” of a steaming sweet potato at breakfast, or the “grassy and flowery and peppery” smell of crushed leaves.
Lai also uses some unexpected sensory description to deepen her characters. Mai’s dad smells like “harsh soap and sour sweat and mediciny medicine.” And Mai’s grandmother always offers her quartered lemon drops: “just the right amount of sweet and sour.” It’s beautiful language, and these observations tell us so much about Mai, and about the people in her world.
3. The contradictions within a “voice” can make it more real.
SAT vocabulary + tween melodrama + profound yearning + wonder at the world = Mai’s layered, complex, and very believable voice. She’s inconsistent and contradictory, stating she’ll never say another SAT word again (her mom makes her learn a new one each day), and then using “ostensible” in the very next sentence.
The mixture of “high” and “low” in Mai’s narration dramatizes the stop-start nature of tween maturity––from one minute to the next, from one sentence to the next, she can be a little kid or almost a grown-up. It’s complex, and incredibly engaging. We end up rooting for Mai, excited to see how she’ll learn and change. Despite Mai’s imperfections, Lai’s deft handling of her protagonist’s voice ensures we’re always on her side––and sad to see her go, when the novel ends.
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