Title: Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai
Target Age: 8 and up
Awards: New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
Publisher Summary: “A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai’s parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn’t know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.”
Evaluation: Listen, Slowly is a profound story celebrating family, cultural diversity, and friendship. I listened to it via audio book on Hoopla, a free service through my public library.
Listening to multi-cultural audio books adds an extra layer to the storytelling. For instance, most of the story takes place in Viet Nam. There are many words and sentences in Vietnamese. If I were reading the text, I would have glossed over them. Hearing the language being spoken though made it much more immersive. The storyteller does an excellent job changing her voice for the various characters, adding to an already engaging story.
Lai has created a memorable cast of characters. Unlike many middle grade stories, adults—both family and friends—have a vital role. The Viet Nam setting provides an excellent contrast to the Western world. I enjoyed learning about life there.
There are several motifs to consider and to discuss.
- Family: The heart of the novel is family—immediate, extended, and cultural. They are so much part of Mai’s life that at times she is longing for her own personal space.
- Teen Crushes: Mai has a huge crush on “him,” a boy she has barely spoken to. At first, she is so consumed with spending the summer at the beach—hopefully, getting to know “him”—that she has a negative attitude about going to Viet Nam for 6 weeks.
- Love: Ba, Mai’s grandmother, is the reason for the trip. Her husband went missing in action during the war. She goes back to her homeland in search of answers. Ba shares stories of their courtship and love.
- War: Growing up, Mai always heard the stories of her parents fleeing during the war, but they did not have any real meaning to her life. Spending time in Viet Nam with Ba and the people in her home village allows her to begin to understand the significance and impact of the war on her family. Some details about the war are relayed, but it is all age-appropriate.
- Life/Death: Ba comes to terms with her husband’s death and learns to let go. She teaches Mai to cherish life and all the moments people tend to take for granted.
- Identity: Mai has always identified with her American culture. During her stay, she gains a connection with her Vietnamese heritage, even learning the language and appreciating the customs.
- Friendship: There is a sharp contrast between her best friend, Montana, in America and the friendships she begins to develop in Viet Nam.
- Cross-Cultural: Riding mopeds through Saigon, washing each others hair monthly to protect from lice, gathering as a community of women to learn how to stitch, taking long naps in the afternoon, learning a new language, and eating big feasts with the entire village are just a few events Mai experiences.
Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
- Compare and contrast suburban America with modern-day Viet Nam.
- Have a Vietnamese feast.
- Create a PowerPoint of pictures from modern-day Viet Nam.
- Bring in a speaker who lived in Viet Nam to share his/her experiences.
- Research the Viet Nam War.
- Practice some greetings or basic words in Vietnamese.
- Visit LibrisNotes for an excellent discussion of the novel.