Book Review: Listen, Slowly by Thannha Lai

Hey y’all! It’s been a week since I posted, but it almost feels like a lifetime ago to me. If you read my last post then you know I started a new job this week, and it has been an interesting transition. Going to another library within the system that I have been working for means I already know a lot of the policies and processes, but not the exact way that anything is implemented at my new location. It is nice to already know how the circulation system and most computer stuff works, as well as most of the terms. At the same time, there have been a few bumps in the road while I learn what is expected of me. But, by now I have almost survived my first week, so everything should only get easier/better from here on, right?

Now, on to today’s review!

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Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai coverTitle: Listen, Slowly

Author: Thanha Lai

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Synopsis (from Goodreads): A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, 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.

Content to be aware of: Unnecessary conversations about undergarments.

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My Thoughts

Listen, Slowly by Thanha Lai is a fun middle-grade tale of learning to respect your family, appreciating that the world is bigger than your own corner of it, and friendship. I also learned a lot about Vietnam and the ways that Westerners tend to misunderstand or misrepresent the culture and history.

I came across this book months ago on The Quiet Pond. This blog is one of the hosts for the Year of Asian Reading Challenge, and back in January (I think it was January?) there was a post recommending fiction about, by authors from, or set in Asian countries, and Listen, Slowly jumped out at me from that list. Personally, I would like to become better at Readers Advisory (recommending books when a person asks “what should I read?” or “my child is this age, what books are good for them?” while I am working in the library), so while I usually don’t read middle grade lit, this year I decided to stretch myself by reading a few books from this section! This specific book is a triple win for me, because A) it is middle grade B) is adds another country to this year’s virtual visits and C) it is much more diverse than most of what I read. I am glad I picked this up, and that the story did not disappoint.

Initially, I was very put off by Mai, the protagonist. She starts off embodying just about every stereotypical characteristic you could think of for a rich California preteen. The most prominent of these include being incredibly selfish, entitled, and short-sighted. She is also obsessed with her cell phone and has allowed her classmates to influence her thinking so much that it is difficult to tell what is her own opinion and what is the opinion she expects her peers to have.

Despite Mai being rather annoying at first, it did not take long to become somewhat sympathetic to her and enjoy the story. As she travels to and through Vietnam with her Grandmother, Mai subtly learns a lot about true friendship and respecting others. I am not quite sure how to explain in it more detailed words, but even though Mai keeps saying things that are selfish, you can tell that she is beginning to recognize this as a fallback or mask and is, at the same time, learning to be her own person and to value those who actually care about her over those who are popular.

The Verdict

I won’t draw out this review much longer, even though there is more I could discuss. While I did not enjoy Mai’s preteen attitude, Listen, Slowly is a fun middle-grade book that is easy to read. It explores themes of friendship, respecting and learning about one’s heritage, and growing up (though not quite coming of age). Bits of Vietnamese culture, history, and language are sprinkled throughout the book, which readers of all ages should enjoy and benefit from. Mai grows significantly through the course of the story, but never completely disregards her California girl default. The reason I am rating this as 4 stars instead of 5 is that Mai’s tendency to manipulate those around her to try to get her way is shown working multiple times in the book. This is not appropriate behavior and should not be shown as fun in a book like this which is widely read by preteens. Also, while I liked watching Mai grow, she still grated on my nerves frequently.

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I am very glad that I read this book, for diversity’s sake as much as anything else. It did not take long to read and is a pleasant story, though filled with preteen antics. I can easily see why this book appears to be so popular with both students and educators.

On an unrelated side note, I am going to try to get ahead on writing blog posts this weekend, so I can schedule them to post during the week. Writing in the evenings has so far proven to be a bit more difficult than I anticipated. I still expect that, once I get used to sleeping on a new schedule, I will have more energy when I get home from work and blogging will fit in more easily once again. Until then, thank you for all of the congratulations and patience sent my way! I appreciate both greatly.


Until the next chapter,


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