Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
Born in California, Mai has grown up as a beach girl in Laguna. So she has big plans this summer to spend time at the beach and time with a boy she’s interested in. But her plans have to change when her parents force her to accompany her Vietnamese grandmother back to Vietnam to see if rumors of her grandfather still being alive after the War are true. Mai hates Vietnam immediately, while the food is good and there’s so much of it, it’s also hot, smelly and filled with mosquitoes who love to bite Mai more than anyone else. Mai hides the fact that she can understand the language even if she won’t try to speak it at all. Now she is stuck alone with her grandmother in a tiny village filled with her extended family, dial up Internet access, and a grumpy cousin who seems to only care for her pet frog. Yet as time passes, Mai discovers the beauty of Vietnam, of slowing down and of taking care of family.
Lai has created another wonderful read, this one almost a love letter to Vietnam. She takes readers into the country side and village life, showing first the oppressive heat and lack of modern conveniences, but then revealing in a beautifully natural way that there is much to value perhaps because the days are filled with extra time to be together. The changes in Mai happen organically as she slowly acclimates to her new surroundings and the new society. Nothing is rushed here, even the storytelling is gently done though never dull.
Mai makes a great lens to see Vietnam through, both outsider and relative. Her struggles with the language are cleverly portrayed along with some details about pronunciation in Vietnamese. When she begins to try speaking, the words move to broken English on the page, indicating her troubles speaking the language. At other times, it is Vietnamese on the page. Mai’s growing friendship with her cousin also happens at its own pace and with its own blend of English and Vietnamese.
Rich in details and completely immersive, this novel will inspire travel dreams in those who read it, perhaps to discover their own family roots. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.