Twelve-year-old Mai has a lot of plans for the summer including hanging out the at the beach with her friends, being cool, and maybe even talking to HIM. Mai’s plans do not by any means include traveling to Vietnam with her grandmother, Ba, to find out what happened to Ba’s husband during the Vietnam War. Although her parents thing the trip is important and a great chance for Mai to connect with her Vietnamese culture, all Mai can see is missed opportunities in her actual home which is California.
Arriving in Vietnam Mai is unprepared for the hear, the smells, or how isolated she feels in a country that everyone says is hers where she still feels like a stranger. With limited Vietnamese and even less familiarity with local customs, Mai can’t wait for this summer trip to end. At least she’s with her grandmother.
Ba doesn’t speak much English and Mai doesn’t speak much Vietnamese but they always understand each other. As Ba returns to a country she never thought she’d see again and Mai discovers a place she never imagined visiting, Mai begins to understand that embracing her Vietnamese heritage isn’t going to diminish her life in Califorina; instead, if she lets it, this trip has the potential to make her world a lot bigger in Listen, Slowly (2015) by Thanhha Lai.
Listen, Slowly is set primarily in Vietnam–all main characters are Vietnamese. Lulu Lam’s narration in the audiobook perfectly captures Mai’s conversational voice along with pronunciation of all the included Vietnamese words and phrases which might be harder for non-Vietnamese speakers to parse from print.
Mai’s snappy narration captures her California aesthetic and barely contained energy with an exciting crush on HIM, dashed summer plans and, eventually, tentative excitement about seeing Vietnam herself for the first time. With no previous interest in her cultural identity, Mai experiences a series of shocks as she learns about Vietnamese customs, foods, and how to deal with the unbearable heat and bugs.
The heaviness of the journey with Ba making what might be a final trip to the country she had to flee as a much younger woman to confront the truth of her husband’s death add melancholy to this story but are handled well. Lai expertly balances all of these nebulous feelings to create a story that focuses on resolution and progress rather than leaving any character stagnant. Mai navigating being decidedly out of her comfort zone as well as a potential friend who would much rather talk to her frogs than to Mai add levity and humor to the plot.
Mai’s explortation of Vietnam and tentative new connections with both family and her prickly friend contrast with Mai’s efforts to keep in touch with her American (presumed white) friends. Feeling isolated and left out from summer adventures back in California, Mai begins to wonder if having to make herself smaller and deny keys parts of herself–like being Vietnamese–are things she should have to do to keep up any friendship.
Listen, Slowly is a beautiful middle grade novel that blends a coming of age story with a travelogue as Mai and her grandmother explore Vietnam, reconnect with relatives and, for Mai, with her heritage.
Possible Pairings: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly, Dumpling Days by Grace Lin, Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh, Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia, Front Desk by Kelly Yang