“Listen, Slowly” by Thanhha Lai

“I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself within your being”

Are you a reader who’s working on your Newbery Award predictions? If so, you’ve probably heard people raving about Thanhha Lai’s “Listen, Slowly”. I have to admit, I bought this as soon as it hit shelves, but didn’t read it right away. At the time, I had been reading a lot of “heart fiction” and needed a break. Now I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner. There’s a reason so many people are talking about this title!

Twelve-year-old Mai has a very strong voice, and is a very believeable adolescent. In fact, she’s so believable that readers may initially be frustrated by her thoughts and actions! She definitely has the attitude and mannerisms of a pre-teen. I really appreciated how she developed and changed as a result of her experiences, but not so much that she became artificial or ingenuine. Her transformation takes place slowly, which I think makes it less jarring for the reader. Thanhha Lai has done a fantastic job of creating a character that middle grade readers will be able to relate to.

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Like most twelve-year-olds, Mai wants to spend her summer vacation at the beach with her best friend and her new crush. Instead, she’s told she’ll be accompanying her father and grandmother to Vietnam. Her family has received news from a detective there that he has information about her grandfather, who went missing during the Vietnam War. Now, Mai will escort her grandmother, Bà, while her father performs oral surgery on children in the country.

Needless to say, Mai is resistant from the start. She does everything she can to expedite the trip, and begs her mother to let her come home. While they wait for news, Mai and Bà visit with relatives in the village and Mai settles into a routine life in Vietnam. As she explores her family’s childhood village and gets familiar with her roots, she becomes less guarded and even makes a new friend. Finally, the detective brings the news they’ve been waiting for, and explains that they need to prepare for a trip to the southern part of Vietnam. During the war, Mai’s grandfather spent time as a captive digging underground tunnels, and it’s there he left a message for his wife.

Mai can tell how desperate her grandmother is to have closure on the most tragic event of her life. Bà gets sick just riding in a car, but on this journey, she’s been in cars, flown in planes, and is now preparing to descend underground. Mai’s father joins them for the climax of their trip. When they arrive in the former Saigon, they’re escorted to the tunnel where Mai’s grandfather was assigned to dig. In the darkness of the tunnel, Mai realizes she’s breathing the same stale, hot air as her grandfather did decades ago. Once through the tunnel, they come to a wider opening where they can finally stand upright.

Deep under the earth, Bà finally reads the message left for her so long ago by the man she loved. Mai watches, completely in awe, and finally realizes the importance of their journey half-way across the world. Something changes within Mai as she witnesses these tremendous acts of love. First, from her grandfather’s message, and second, from her grandmother’s trip to this hallowed place. Though Mai has sacrificed part of her summer to make this trip, her grandmother has dedicated most of her life to finding out what happened to her husband. At the end of their journey, Mai has a new appreciation for her family and her heritage, so much so that she’s willing to spend the remainder of her summer in Vietnam with her father and grandmother.

Final Thoughts

Unlike her last book, “Inside Out and Back Again”, “Listen, Slowly” is not written in verse, but it’s just as lyrical. I loved how the story unfolded through character interactions, dialogue, and setting descriptions, though the author could have easily favored one over the others. Each character was appropriately and thoroughly developed, even the secondary characters.

Going through this experience with Mai was extremely moving. I often felt moved to tears, particularly in the scene with her grandmother in the tunnel. I think this book will be popular with middle grade readers, though as an adult, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on myself as a teenager. It made me wonder how many opportunities and experiences I may have missed because I was so wrapped up in my friends or what was going on at school. It certainly gave me a renewed sense of admiration and appreciation toward my family, and a hope that I can keep that feeling alive in the hearts of my young students.

Title: “Listen, Slowly”

Author: Thanhha Lai

Pages: 260

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books

Publish Date: February 17, 2015

You might also enjoy: “Echo” by Pam Muñoz Ryan

My recommended age range: 5th-7th grade

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