Little Willow (slayground) wrote,
Little Willow

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The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

The Language Inside, a new verse novel by Holly Thompson, explores cultural identity, details different forms of communication, and tests the strength of relationships between relatives and friends, both at home and across the ocean. If Sarah Dessen and Melina Marchetta collaborated on a verse novel, this would be it. I strongly recommend it, and here's why:

Meet Emma, a teenage girl who must abruptly move from Japan to America.

one minute my head was full of tsunami cleanup
with plans to visit Miyagi each school break

one minute I was a member of student council
with fund-raising plans for two adopted Tohoku schools

one minute I was head back to teachers who knew me
a coach eyeing me for varsity volleyball
and a Model UN conference in the Philippines

one minute we thought the earthquake
was the only thing
to turn our lives upside down this year

but the next minute
Mom's mammogram
changed everything
and nearly the next minute
I was started tenth grade
in a country I'd lived in only as a baby
in a state I'd never lived in
in my father's mother's town

And: dad works for a Japanese company I say
my mom teaches at a university
they met in Japan when they were college students

studying the language

After living in Japan nearly her whole life, Emma must move to Massachusetts. Her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she is having surgery and treatment in Boston. Having only lived in the United States as a baby, and visited for family vacations sometimes, Emma doesn't really feel like she's an American, but her new classmates immediately think she is because she's Caucasian and speaks English.

I think some more
on what's strange

about being here
and I realize

it's not just losing
Japanese words
and phrases

it's as if I've lost
half of myself here
but no one knows
because I'm a white girl

i don't look like I belong in Japan
everyone thinks I must be glad
to be "back" in Massachusetts

as if this were home
     but it's not

Suffice it to say, she would much rather be in Japan.

I miss Japan
like I'm missing a person

While awaiting her mother's surgery and test results, Emma volunteers at a long-term care center, working one-on-one with Zena, a woman who has locked-in syndrome as the result of a stroke. The two women bond over a love of poetry. Emma learns how to communicate with Zena based on her eye movements and a board filled with letters and numbers. Together, they spell out her poems, letter by letter.

Emma befriends another volunteer, a boy who goes to her school. Samnang, whose family is Cambodian, also feels the struggle of having one foot in one world and one foot in another. He lives with his uncle and aunt; his parents, long divorced, aren't a daily part of his life, but that's another story. When not at school or the center, Samnang can often be found practicing or performing folk dances with his group. The two teens compare the histories and artistry of their country's dances, and discuss the difficulty of honoring your family's history and traditions in a modern world.

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson is a refreshing and believable take on the fish-out-of-water story. It's a really solid book. The typesetting of the verse made it very easy to read, and I flew through it. I really like what it has to say about identity, culture, community, customs, and communication.  As Emma explores her ties to both her homeland and her birthplace, she tries to stay connected to her family and friends in both countries. Due to her work with the tsunami and earthquake relief efforts in Japan before they moved, then her time with Zena in America, and her involvement with Model UN, I could easily see her becoming an activist or a philanthropist.

It was nice to see a family stick together while going through such a huge struggle, rather than have them come apart. That's not to say things aren't difficult for them: her parents are in love, but her father has to work in New York to manage things; her younger brother acclimates to America more readily than Emma does; her mother, once an avid runner, can barely walk down the street the first few weeks after her surgery. They have all lost something in the move, but they all gain something as well. Perspective. A new outlook. New hobbies. New friends. A new appreciation for life in general, and for the life they're living.

The title of the book comes from Emma's poem, which she shares in the last quartet of the book. It's a beautiful piece in which she expresses herself using both English and kanji.

Holly Thompson's previous verse novel, Orchards, has similar roots, but flips it around: In that story, the protagonist is an American girl who stays with relatives in Japan the summer between 8th and 9th grade. I recommend Orchards, and I liked The Language Inside even more.

I posted one of my favorite passages from the book during Poetry Friday here. Let me share another of my favorite moments before I close this review:

and I feel like we just turned a corner
but I don't yet know
what's around the bend

For those of you who, like me, enjoy finding passages or characters in books that make you think, "That's me!" - Here's the moment from this book for me:

and Anne looks younger
all gesture and movement

I'm not telling you who Anne is. You'll have to read the book to find out.

If you're looking for another story about a girl with ties to both Japan and America, read The Waking trilogy by Thomas Randall/Christopher Golden. It's a horror series, so that's another genre altogether, but both The Waking and The Language Inside feature a bilingual female Caucasian teenaged protagonist who is pulled from one country to the other and feels torn between the two.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Verse Novels Booklist
Tough Issues for Teens Booklist

Tags: books, reviews
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