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Thanhha Lai (born 1965) is a Vietnam-born American writer of the children's literature. She won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Newbery Honor for her debut novel, Inside Out & Back Again, published by HarperCollins.
Lai graduated from University of Texas, Austin with a degree in journalism and from 1988 worked about two years for the Orange County, California newspaper The Register, covering Little Saigon, the local Vietnamese community. She earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University and settled in New York City, where she teaches at Parsons The New School for Design (on leave this year).
She and husband Henri Omer have a five-year-old daughter.
Virginia Wolff interviewed Lai for the January 2012 number of School Library Journal. She calls Inside Out "a powerful story in slender, sinewy prose poems, just a few words in each line." Hà and her family flee home and meet America's "sharp-edged barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, and custom."
Lai worked for fifteen years on an adult novel. In her own words it was "third-person omniscient, spanning 4000 years of Vietnamese history, and whiplashed by hundreds of overly dramatic, showy sentences." The transformation worked when she got "inside the mind of a 10-year-old girl who feels as much as any adult but can’t express the emotions yet, it seemed right to employ a few precise, pregnant words and have them explode into real, raw emotions."
The fictional girl Hà once says, "No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama." The story features her discovery of and adjustment to "the foreign world of Alabama". A review by Publishers Weekly calls it "especially poignant as she cycles from feeling smart in Vietnam to struggling in the States, and finally regains academic and social confidence."
Lai explains, "She felt smart in Vietnam ... . For her, being smart equated to a confidence that she could manage her world. That’s why she would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama." In America the little girl writes,