Twelve year old Mai (or Mia, as she is known to everyone outside of her family) has just finished school and is ready for summer break, which in California means beach and friends. Mai is a hard worker, a straight-A student, and a dutiful twelve-year-old daughter, but she really wants to stop thinking about SAT words and good grades and simply enjoy summer. Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại opens as Mai sits on a plane preparing for a six-week stay in Vietnam, not exactly the summer break she had in mind.
While Mai’s “do-gooder” father (her term) cares for sick children in the remote mountains in the northern part of the country, Mai is to be caregiver and companion to Bà, her grandmother. Mai knows that Bà is returning to her village in hopes of learning more about her husband’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Mai has only ever known Ông (grandfather) through stories told by Bà, as he was presumed killed in the war when Mai’s father was only a young child. Determined to get her grandmother to find the closure she needs as quickly as possible so they can fly back to California with some remaining summer break to salvage, Mai doesn’t see the trip as an opportunity to “connect with her roots,” as her parents encourage.
Instead, Mai meets a climate of heat and humidity like nothing she’s ever known, and a culture that is as otherworldly to her as could be. Knowing very little Vietnamese, Mai is isolated by language, as well. The village is filled with “maybe-relatives,” but regardless of their relationships to her family, there is a cultural expectation of respect and deference from Mai. Though she resents being there, Mai cannot help but feel an obligation to her grandmother, so she begrudgingly goes along with what is expected of her. But her desire to get the answers Bà seeks is not an easy one to fulfill. As Mai counts down the days, always with her eye on the prize of getting out earlier than the planned six weeks, she does indeed begin to acclimate, to the heat, the humidity, the food, the people, and even the language.
Stubborn and willful, as adolescents often are (at least the American ones I know!), Mai doesn’t want to openly acknowledge the transformation that readers will see gradually occurring throughout her visit. But in Thanhhà Lại’s talented hands, the character of Mai isn’t a stereotype. Rather, she’s an articulate and emotional young girl struggling to understand her place in two worlds. Though she sees Vietnam as more of her parents’ and grandmother’s country and culture before the trip, she is undeniably shaped by her experiences there. The understanding that she gains, especially as a result of putting aside her own feelings and longings in favor of trying to see her grandmother’s perspective, makes this a beautiful cultural coming-of-age story. Middle grade readers will be given a look into what may be an unfamiliar culture through the eyes of a character who is accessible and relatable.
Be sure to also check out Thanhhà Lại’s first novel, Inside Out & Back Again, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as a Newbery Honor.