Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Bibliographic Citation
Lai, Thanhha. (2012). Inside Out & Back Again. New York: Scholastic Inc. ISBN 9780545447850.

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Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse by Thanhha Lai about ten-year-old Ha and her family as they are forced to leave Saigon and relocate to Alabama because of the Vietnam War. The short free verse poems that make up this book are descriptive, but overall easy to read. Personally, I do not enjoy reading novels in verse and always find my attention drifting while reading them. Inside Out & Back Again is different in that the short individual poems are like diary entries and are concise enough to just feel like a short story written in choppy blocks of text. The titles of each poem help the reader to get a feel for what the entry will be about but does take away from the diary-type layout. However, the overall journal-like feel of the book is furthered by the inclusion of a date and often time of day at the end of each entry.

This book is divided into three parts, in Saigon, life at sea, and adjusting to American life in Alabama. It is an inspirational story about adjustments, family, culture, and sacrifices. Although this story takes places in a tumultuous time in history, the story isn’t political or judgmental but instead is full of wisdom and life lessons that can be universal despite the story’s setting. Since this book is in free verse, there is no consistent rhythm or sound to it but the descriptive language found in it paints a beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring image for the reader. The reader can often imagine what it would be like for them to leave their home, their culture, and their language and start over in a brand new place. Ha often talks about her struggles with learning English, and even says she would rather deal with the war time struggles in Saigon than be in Alabama. The reader will at times feel sympathy for Ha and her family but feel hopeful and optimistic for them later. Overall, this is a memorable story that presents young people with an emotional and moving opportunity to learn about another culture without being too educational, preachy, or sentimental.

Several other book trailers can be found on YouTube.


Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum

Bibliographic Citation
Mecum, Ryan. (2008). Zombie Haiku. Cincinnati, OH: HOW Books. ISBN 9781600610707.

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Haiku is one of the least popular poetic forms (Vardell, 2006). After doing some of my own research I found that students generally stop liking to read around fourth or fifth grade when books have more pages and fewer pictures (Beers, 1998). Author Ryan Mecum has found the perfect way to not only get older children reading, but to also turn up the excitement about poetry and who doesn’t love zombies? When working on this review, I reached out to Mecum about his target audience and suggested age group. In his opinion, this book appeals to readers ages 13 and up. I think this book would even be appropriate for more mature, younger readers with an affinity for the undead. Perhaps 6th grade (age 11 or 12?) and up. While haiku may not be the most popular reading choice for this age group, the topic of this book is certainly interesting and popular enough to appeal to young people and stimulate their imaginations. After all, zombies are imaginary. The great thing about this book is that it gets children reading and learning. After talking with some preteens and teenagers about it, many hadn’t never even heard of haiku before, but all were interested in reading this book.

Zombie Haiku is written as a journal of an amateur poet who is bitten by an infected “person” and becomes a zombie. Despite the usual mindless zombie drive for brains, this guy is able to think and write about his life in the zombie plague. The journal also comes with photos and blood splatter on the pages which adds to the pleasurable yet disgusting obsession many people seem to have with zombies today. The book is arranged like a story and follows the natural progression of events, but is written in haiku. Like you’d expect with a personal diary, there is no table of contents or indices. Many reviews main critique of this book is that a zombie couldn’t possible write, snap photos, or compile a journal but this format is what makes this book so enjoyable.

Like more traditional haiku, Zombie Haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllable rhythm, but unlike traditional haiku they are not about the seasons or nature. The imagery that these little poetic gems conjure up in the mind of the reader have a strong emotional impact. Does the reader at times sympathize with the poet? Yes. Feel disgusted? Yes. Become amused? Yes. The language in and flow of these poems make it hard to believe that zombies aren’t the topic of more poetry. In the words of Robert Kirkman, creator of  The Walking Dead, zombies and haiku “seem to go together like zombies and brains”. Zombie Haiku’s author Ryan Mecum is also the author of Werewolf Haiku and Vampire Haiku and is known for his tweets also often written in haiku.

Highlighted Poem
Toes are like grapes
with the same rush of flavor.
Same juices, same pop.

Can’t get enough of Zombie Haiku? Check out!

Additional References
Beers, K. (1998). Choosing not to read: Understanding why some middle schoolers just say no. In Beers, K., and Samuels, B. G. (eds.). Into focus: Understanding and creating middle school readers. (pp. 37-63). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Dizzy in Your Eyes by Pat Mora

Bibliographic Citation
Mora, Pat. (2010). Dizzy in your eyes. New York: Random House Inc. ISBN 9780375855368.

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As a former junior high teacher, many parts of this book made me giggle. Adolescents spend a lot of their time and energy fixating on love, relationships, and acceptance. Dizzy In Your Eyes is a collection of fifty poems about just that. These aren’t just any love poems though; these poems expose readers to a variety of poetry structures sonnets and haikus. Hate free verse poetry? No problem. Mora’s writings are differentiated enough that all poetry fans can probably find something to enjoy in Dizzy In Your Eyes. In my opinion, one of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t just apply to one person or one small sect of society; these poems transcend boundaries and apply to youth as a whole. Additionally, while the book does feature poems using the Spanish language, they are not just for bilingual readers. Its versatility could make this book a poetry classic for young adults.

Award-winning poet, Pat Mora, did a beautiful job of writing and collecting love poems that touch a variety of emotions and aren’t overly sentimental or sappy. For example, the poem “Pressure” is about a young girl feeling pressured into becoming intimate with someone because he says she’ll do it for she loves him. Unfortunately, some young readers may know what this is like and it certainly evokes a feeling within but it is far from sappy. Each poem in Dizzy In Your Eyes features a familiar topic to its young readership, and the love topic of each poems shifts through varying stages like having a crush or falling out of love. This allows the book to have an emotional impact and be relatable to the audience. By doing this she was able to keep the attention of the target audience, young readers. For example, the poem “Dumped” is about the ending of a relationship and how someone can go from being so happy one minute to alone and questioning everything the next. Do the two people just stay friends? Was the entire relationship a lie? These questions are something the readers can understand and identify with, but Mora still finds ways to expose them to knew things.

Mora’s poems are written on the right hand page of the book, but often an explanation of the poetry style is featured on the left. I found this to be one of the best parts of the book. I loved learning about the poetry while I enjoyed the poem itself. In addition to that nifty feature, you can also have a Table of Contents, page numbers, and title headings to help you navigate through this lovely little book. I think this book is sure to be a favorite of young readers everywhere.

City I Love by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Bibliographic Citation
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 2009. City I Love. Ill. by Marcellus Hall. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780810983274.

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City I Love is written by well-known children’s poet, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and illustrated by Marcellus Hall. It is a collection of 18 short poems about various cities across the globe from London and New York City to Venice and Mexico City. All of the poems in the book are short, some shorter than others, but the descriptive style of each poem makes the book very cohesive. The layout of the book flows together but is not exactly uniformed for each poem. Many poems cover a double page spread while others do not, but each layout works for its particular poem. This book follows a little brown dog with a backpack and a blue bird as they embark on an international adventure. Not only are the poems appealing to a young audience, but also readers will enjoy trying to find the dog and his bird companion in each poem. Another fun thing about this book would be trying to guess which city the dog and bird are in for each poem. The images are gorgeous, but they don’t have the city name written on them, which is fun. Since school age children start learning about cities and transportation early on, they can relate to these poems, but they can also learn from them. In the poem “Taxi” there is a Double Decker bus with a British flag, Big Ben in the background, and the taxi driver is driving on the other side of the car. All of these images hint that the dog and bird are in London, but younger readers may not know this, so it can become a fun game.

Many of the poems within the book do not rhyme like the poem “Sparrow,” “Lucky to be born / on this balcony, sparrow / awaits city flights”. However, some poems, such as “Sing a Song of Cities”, do rhyme. This poem begins, “Sing a song of cities. / If you do, / cities will sing back to you”.

One of the things I really like about this book is how descriptive it is. Hopkins uses many adjectives to describe each city experience, and really gives the reader a feeling about each place. For example, in the poem “City Lights”, which is about Tokyo, says, “Blazing lights / flicker / flash / glitter gleam / twinkle / sparkle / bedazzle / beam / so / brilliantly / bright”. I also like the spacing in some of the poems and the way he uses the text to create an image. For example, in the poem “Snow City”, he uses the word “down” and the letters are descending.

Highlighted Poem


Subways are people-
People standing
People sitting
People swaying to and fro
Some in suits
Some in tatters
People I will never know.

Subways are people-
Some with glasses
Some without
Boy with smile
Girl with Frown
People dashing
Steel flashing
Up and down and round the town.

Subways are people-
People old
People new
People always on the go
Racing, running, rushing people
People I will never know.

As a group we will talk about diversity. To introduce this concept to younger children I would use a crayon box, and we’d discuss how all the crayons are different, but they all go together in the same box. To reinforce that cities are full of diversity, we will read this poem aloud and discuss all the different kinds of people on the subway. The students will then make a mask out of a paper plate of one of the people on the subway that they saw today who is different from them.


Crayons Markers Paper Plates Yarn
Felt Glue Scissors Fabric Scraps

Additional Information

Check out this book trailer!

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

Engle, Margarita. 2012. The Wild Book. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0547581316

Fefa is a young girl growing up with dyslexia on the Cuban countryside in the early 1900s.  Fefa and her mother are told by a doctor that Fefa will not learn to read or write properly and that she will not be happy or successful in school. Refusing to accept this, Fefa’s mother gives her a blank journal and from there the story follows Fefa as she attacks her challenge with the written language head-on as well as some insight into Cuba’s history.

The Wild Book is a free verse novel written by an award-winning author, Margarita Engle. Because this is a novel in verse, the text doesn’t rhyme or have a distinct rhythm. Fefa tells you her story through several different poems that make up this book. Each word is carefully chosen to fit into the story and demonstrate Fefa’s challenges with the written language. The text is arranged in a way to show the challenges Fefa has with reading and writing.

For example,
“When I scramble the sneaky letters
b and d, or the even trickier ones
r and l, Mama helps me learn
how to picture
the sep-a-rate

The text often breaks down to show Fefa’s process like the words “mys-te-ri-ous” or “syl-la-ble”. While the book has no illustrations, the way the book is written gives you a some mental imagery about what is going on in Fefa’s world. The reader can empathize with Fefa’s frustration with her dyslexia and struggle to write in her blank book.

One of the great things about this book is its historical reference. There is an author’s note in the back that gives the reader some background information about the term “word-blindness” and what her grandmother told her about growing up in Cuba in that time.

I don’t particularly like novels in verse or free verse poetry either. This book is no exception. I really enjoy history and am a lover of historical fiction. I would’ve much rather read the story about Fefa as a story and not like this. I think this could’ve been really great but it missed the mark for me.

The Wild Book is a new novel but is predicted to receive several awards in the upcoming year.

“A beautiful tale of perseverance.”—Kirkus Review
“A lyrical glimpse of early twentieth-century Cuba.” -Booklist
“The idea of a wild book on which to let her words sprout is one that should speak to those with reading difficulties and to aspiring poets as well.”–School Library Journal

This book would be an excellent choice for an interdisciplinary unit between an ELA and history class. Margarita Engle’s works would be great in a featured author lesson or in a poetry unit.

*Other novels in verse by Margarita Engle include:
Engle, Margarita. The Surrender Tree. ISBN 0805086749
Engle, Margarita. The Poet Slave of Cuba. ISBN 0312659288
Engle, Margarita. Tropical Secrets. ISBN 0805089365
Engle, Margarita. The Firefly Letters. ISBN 0805090827