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It’s Poetry Friday! This week’s host is Jama Kim Rattigan at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. She is celebrating National Chocolate Cookie Day. Stop by for some treats and all of this week’s Poetry Friday links.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many events have been cancelled. From big-arena concerts (I had tickets to see Ringo Starr in June) to small family gatherings, all of us have traded disappointment and even loss for the health and safety of our families, friends, and communities.

One event I was looking forward to was a long-planned conversation with verse novelist and YA/MG author Thanhhà Lai.

We met at the Collingswood (NJ) Book Festival last fall and hit it off as we talked about writing novels in verse. “Invite me to speak in your area,” Thanhhà said.

My local independent bookstore, The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, was happy to oblige. To celebrate National Poetry Month in April, Thanhhà had a line up of local school visits and — exciting! — she and I would do a “In Conversation” style talk for adults.

When Maryland shut down in mid-March, I thought the whole thing would be cancelled. But the Ivy Bookshop wasn’t giving in that easily. The bookstore, especially Martha Marani, Emma Snyder, and Emily Miller, made the event virtual.

I reread Thanhhà’s award-winning verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again. Then I went on to her recent YA novel, Butterfly Yellow. The characters are so artfully drawn in this book about an 18-year-old refugee from Vietnam who finds herself stuck in Texas with a wannabe cowboy. The novel portrays Hằng ‘s story, including her harrowing escape from Vietnam and her quest to reunite with her  younger brother in America, with humor and humanity.

Her second middle grade, Listen Slowly, is about a very American girl who reluctantly visits Vietnam with her immigrant grandmother. It’s a book that has special appeal for first and second generation American readers. (Read my post with Saadia Faruqi about encouraging first and second generation American kids to talk with family members about their immigration experiences.)

On April 29, we recorded our conversation as a live Zoom event. Thanks to the Ivy Bookshop, I can share it with you! I had a great time talking with  Thanhhà about verse novels, the poetry inherent to the Vietnamese language, and how she creates such memorable characters.

The video is available at this link. If you’d like to buy a copy of Thanhhà Lại‘s books, The Ivy Bookshop is mailing out orders. Check out their website here.

16 responses to “Poetry Friday: Conversation with Thanhhà Lại”

  1. Linda Mitchell says:

    Laura! I’m so glad you invited Thanhha to speak. I loved her humor and fun and tales of Texas. I ordered Butterfly Yellow from Ivy Bookshop and read it. It’s so lovely. Oh, my goodness. There is heartbreak and love and joy and growth and all the things I want in my own writing and what I want kids to find in reading. I’m still a bit in the glow of it. Thank you for inviting this author to speak. If she is ever teaching a workshop, I’d love to know.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      She was really delightful to talk to. I *loved* Butterfly Yellow. Those two characters felt very real.

  2. Linda Baie says:

    I am sad that none of these wonderful plans are happening this time. Many are missing special connections with authors like Thanhha. Thanks for sharing this interview.. I will certainly read Butterfly Yellow sometime, have read and loved the others.

  3. Thank you for writing about Thannha. I have seen Inside Out & Back Again, but I’ll put both of her books on my list. It’s so unfortunate that it’s so hard for kids to meet authors in person now, but it won’t last forever.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      It has been hard. I’m grateful for the Skype visits and Zoom meetings that can happen between readers and authors, though.

  4. jama says:

    Disappointing that these wonderful author events had to be cancelled, but I’m glad the Ivy Bookshop was able to make Thannha’s visit a virtual event. Thanks for linking to your zoom conversation!

  5. I am so glad you found a work around for the author events. Our new normal, sigh.

  6. Ruth says:

    Thank you! I read Inside Out and Back Again with my seventh graders every year. I’m looking forward to watching the video!

  7. I know I’ve seen “Inside Out and Back Again,” and it’s definitely going on my book list, though they all sound like wonderful reads-–might have to get all three. Thanks for sharing Thanhhà’s books and the link to the video, so happy it was saved so more can view it!

  8. Kathryn Apel says:

    This is SUCH a fascinating interview! Thank-you for sharing. (And so lovely to see Martha from the Ivy, too.) Wonderful insights and tips. “I don’t imagine readers – I only ever imagine the characters.” Bookmarking to revisit!

  9. Sally Murphy says:

    I am so glad that you found a way to make the event go ahead – and that this meant that even here in Australia I could listen in to your conversation. While I listed I ordered two books, and can’t wait for them to arrive.

  10. Love that technology allowed this conversation to be heard, Laura. I look forward to reading Butterfly Yellow and Listen Slowly. : )

  11. What a wonderful thing to read this post and listen to your recorded conversation, Laura. Inside Out and Back Again was the first verse novel I ever read. I was so taken with it that I gave it to Miranda to read, even though she was quite young at the time. She related to the main character enough that she wanted to write a letter to the author. That is the first and only time she’s done that. I remember researching and finding Thanhhà’s email address and asking for her postal address. Thank you, Thanhhà, for writing back to Miranda. She still has that letter tucked inside her copy of the book!

  12. Laura, thank you for the interview with Thannha. I worked with teachers on using Inside Out and Back Again with middle school teachers. It is a fascinating book. I especially liked that the author goes deep inside a character’s mind to bring out the voice. She writes in prose poem is thinking in Vietnamese to her. That sheds some new light upon the books now.

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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