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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: Drawing from Memory vs Inside Out and Back Again

Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say
Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai

Judged by
Jewell Parker Rhodes

Memory & Resilience: Inside Out & Back Again and Drawing from Memory

Oh, my! What a terrific, imaginative battle! Both books completely captivated me—evoking foreign landscapes, traumatic wars, immigration, and the extraordinary resilience of youth. With such similarities between Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Drawing from Memory by Allen Say, I simply wanted to throw my hands up and declare a “truce.”

And, yet, Inside Out & Back Again and Drawing from Memory, both by award-winning authors, are so distinctively different in point of view, tone, and narrative approach, that I felt awe. Two champions battling with finesse!

Both tales are rooted in biography. Lai fictionalizes her childhood. Say creates a visual and literary memoir.

Sifting through personal experience to create art is never easy. The possible pitfalls are many: emotional indulgence, inability to empathize with perspectives beyond the central character, and, most importantly, the failure to elevate memories to art, imbued with human truths for a new generation. Both authors brilliantly outflank these problems.

Inside Out & Back Again tells the story of Hà, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl, who flees with her family during the fall of Saigon to foreign Alabama. “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama,” says Hà. Through layered, complex characterization, Lai breathes life into the dramatic journey of a child becoming a young woman and her equally compelling journey as a refugee finding a new home.

Told in first-person, lyrical verse, Hà’s voice is endearing, rooted in concrete details. The chapter PAPAYA TREE begins with: “It grew from a seed/I flicked into/the back garden. / A seed like/ a fish eye, slippery/shiny/black.” and ends with “I vow/to rise first every morning/to stare at the dew/on the green fruit/shaped like a lightbulb. / I will be the first/ to witness its ripening.” Such glorious imagery! Not an unnecessary word! Symbolically, the papaya represents the tragic loss of Hà’s homeland and Saigon’s fall. Hà will not witness the fruit’s “ripening” but she will bear witness to her own growth as she acclimates to a new culture. The papaya tree will be replaced with a willow tree where Hà digs a hole and screams, “I hate everyone!!!! Lilting, tonal Vietnamese will be replaced with confounding, consonant English. Stunningly, it’s Lai’s precise language and characterization, which creates emotional restraint and makes an unbearably sad story, readable. Tragedy becomes triumph and I want Hà to tell me her story all over again.

Drawing from Memory is a full-fledged imaginative assault. Part memoir, historical narrative, graphic novel, Say uses drawings, photographs, and prose to express his journey from young boy to master artist, and how he immigrated to America and learned to “write a story… in the language of the people who were bombing” Japan.

At 12, living on his own, Say apprenticed himself to the great cartoonist Noro Shinpei. Unlike Say’s father who disapproved of his artistry, Shinpei becomes Say’s sensei and “spiritual father.”

Amazingly, through drawings and words, Say creates multiple levels of narrative drive. There are prose and cartoon stories within stories, excursions of technique that deepen the story’s emotional resonance. Tokida, a fellow apprentice, left home at 15 and walked 350 miles from Osaka to Tokyo, to pursue his cartoonist dream. Tokida’s tale, told in color and black-and-white drawings, inspires the younger Say and amplifies the book’s main narrative. Beyond tales within tales, Drawing from Memory abounds with other “sub-plots” (a most inadequate word!) in which pictures speak, layering and extending theme. There is SO MUCH in this small book that it easily could’ve become chaotic. Instead, every aspect is integrated and vibrant.

Near the end of Drawing from Memory, there is a page of black-and-white, light-filled, and over-exposed photographs of Say with his sister, fellow cartoonists, and schoolmates. At the bottom, centered, is a picture of Say’s youthful mother. His caption is: “MY MOTHER HAD A PRETTY SMILE.” It’s heartbreaking. Why? Because Say’s mother is a memory. Because on pages one and two, he draws a picture of his fishing village home. There’s a photo of the toddler, Say standing on a brick sea wall while his mother holds him tight. A school photo. A drawing of Japan surrounded by water. Say writes, “Mother constantly worried that I might drown in the sea. She tried to keep me at home.” Nonetheless, the smiling young woman encouraged her child to go, to leave home for middle school, to leave Japan for a land far away, across the sea, so he could pursue his artistic dreams.

Drawing from Memory is like a treasure trove, able to give pleasure to readers of all ages.

Two worthy opponents. Which should I choose?

The battle is won by Drawing from Memory. Deceptively simple in its parts, these parts create a more ambitious, richly layered, and unique tale. Say’s artistry can be experienced so successfully in so many ways!

Drawing from Memory can’t be told any way other than how it is!

— Judge Jewell Parker Rhodes

And the Winner of this match is……

It’s always interesting to see how themes emerge organically between later matches, and this one is a perfect example. Both books feature immigrants, Ha coming from Vietnam in the wake of the Vietnam War, and Allen Say coming from Japan following World War II, with both characters also finding their voice, Ha gradually acquiring a facility with the English language allowing her natural intelligence to shine forth and Allen Say finding his vocation as an artist. While I’m a fan of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, I’m not driving the bandwagon, but then I only read it once, so I think my opinion of the book would probably only improve on subsequent readings. Nevertheless, I, too, would advance DRAWING FROM MEMORY here. It is the last remaining member of Team Nonfiction, after all. Looking ahead, I wonder if Chris will advance WONDERSTRUCK so we can see how these two heavily illustrated books fare against each other in another apple vs. apple battle.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


In a situation similar to the previous match, both books are competing in the same genre with congruous creativity, description, and tales of far away lands and the desperate means of getting there. Although the books are quite similar, there is no mistaking the individuality and uniqueness to each book. Inside Out and Back Again was a masterpiece of beautiful literature and a rich story told through verses. The style of writing was pleasantly different than most of the other works in this competition, and stood out as a fantastic work of historical fiction among the sixteen books competing. Drawing from Memory is a true and heartwarming story about the great measures one man took to follow his dreams. What really stood out for me in this piece was the author’s visualizations. The book came to life through the magnificent pictures that the artist created, and it took the story to a whole new level. I will have to agree with Judge Jewell Parker Rhodes on calling it a truce. However, in these battles one book must triumph over the other, and for me, that book is Inside Out and Back Again. Although I do have a high respect for the judges’ decisions, after reading Inside Out and Back Again for the second time I was able to appreciate the descriptive literature more so than the first time, getting a fuller and more complete experience of the book.

— Kid Commentator GI


  1. It’s a good thing that brackets are done completely for fun, because I only have one book left and I have it losing tomorrow. As we all say every year, I am constantly amazed by the judges’ commentaries on the different books — they are what makes this battle extraordinary.

  2. Steffaney Smith says

    Another enlightening morning brought to me by Battle of the Books. Hadn’t read enough of the contenders to even try to form my own brackets, so just enjoying the commentaries and learning which of these books must be on the library shelves for teachers and parents to read to the youth who won’t gravitate to these books themselves. Very powerful stories that have life experiences worth sharing!

  3. Maisie Mac says

    I have never read any of those books- so do you guys think it was fair? Inside Out and Back Again sounds better but what is your opinion?

  4. Since becoming a Children’s librarian I have run into many people who have declared that they planned to write a children’s book some day. They give the impression that, as children are simple-minded, it will be the effort of an afternoon to knock out their literary offering. They will fit it in between walking the dog and texting their dry cleaners.

    Authors the like of Say and Lai prove that the highest craft of art can be found in children’s literature. Both such powerful stories told with the precision of the eye of an artist who is able to distinguish between what elements are necessary to the story and what needs to be left out to so as not to distract from perfection.

    So happy to have both books for my students, and so happy to read Ms. Rhodes lovely commentary.

  5. Drawing from Memory is one of the books I was not able to find and read before the Battle. After reading this commentary, I will redouble my efforts.

  6. I chose Inside Out as the Undead because I was afraid this would happen. I didn’t know it would go up against Drawing from Memory, one of my favorite-est books in the battle. This is the joy and the despair that is Battle of the Books. I want so many books to just WIN!!

    I made no prediction in this round. How could I?

  7. Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! (That’s not a complaint against Drawing from Memory. Just – Inside Out – favorite – nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!)

  8. Battle Commander says

    Here’s a bit of good news for all of you commenting who love Inside Out & Back Again. Harper Collins is generously providing three signed copies for our Giveaway!

  9. Genevieve says

    When I’m sad to see the books I loved lose their battles (Inside Out, Grand Plan), it’s a strong consolation to read the judges’ beautiful and perceptive analyses of them that point out strengths that may not have been trumpted till now.

  10. Well, in the manor of bragging, I have picked 2 of 3 current round 3 titles correctly. I had BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY and DRAWING FROM MEMORY going this far. However, I have lost some big ones and had neither going any farther.

    I’m beginning to wonder about DRAWING FROM MEMORY though. It has this simple way of bowling people over. I read it a while ago because Wendy over at Heavy Medal was in love with it. I thought it was very good. It wasn’t until reading two, thorough and precise author/judge commentaries on it now, that I have begun to truly see it’s brilliance.

    I’m beginning to think that it’s the dark horse here. The one that just might sneak in and shock everyone in the end.

    Although I’m still pulling for OKAY FOR NOW. DaNae, you still holding up in your tent?

  11. I’m in complete agreement here. Except I didn’t get as much out of Inside Out & Back Again as the judge did. Maybe I need another reading. But Say’s work is so impressive, so layered, has so much variety. I’m glad it’s getting some recognition here.

    And I’m not sure what to think about Drawing from Memory vs. Wonderstruck (which I really hope will be the next round winner). Both are stories told very much through words and pictures together, so couldn’t be considered fully for Newbery or Caldecott. For me, the edge would go to Drawing from Memory, but I do think both books are excellent. (If Life is in the next round, no question that I’m rooting for Drawing from Memory!)

  12. Yes Mr. H (otsy-totsy?), Occupy BoB is as strong as it ever was. Running low on ice cream though, could you send Doug by with a delivery?

    A little worried about the coming of the Zombie. If we find the undead unsatisfactory over her at Occupy BoB full flown violence may erupt.

  13. DaNae, maybe you could set up the Occupy BoB Library with all of the favorites. At least the weather’s getting better…

    I didn’t have a strong favorite in this match, but I’m happy with the outcome. DFM is a singular book, and one that gives somethng new to the reader with every reading.

  14. Jennifer H says

    I did truly enjoy both of these and had previously picked Inside Out as a favorite, but I had to agree with our wonderful judge today that Drawing was richly layered and a very unique tale. I don’t mean to detract from Inside Out’s story at all when I say that, but the assessment did change my mind in favor of Drawing as well. I do wish, however, that the cover were different. I don’t think it helped draw potential readers. Okay, I admit, that’s the reason I thought I wouldn’t think much of it.

  15. Drawing From Memory is one of those books that I meant to read…but put off until it showed up on BoB. There are always a few each year that I’m glad I got the push to read (Trash was one from another year) and I’m so glad I picked up DFM – happy to see it advance!

  16. Having not one, but two judges rave about Drawing from Memory, I’ve become convinced that I need to put forth more effort into getting my hands on a copy. I do agree with Jennifer H. in that the cover does nothing for me (though I’m a bit of a cover snob — I’ve probably missed out on a good book or two simply because its cover was so off-putting I didn’t want to read it).

  17. Steffaney Smith says

    Good news from Battle Commander today! My youth collection could use a signed copy of Inside Out & Back Again….I am anxious to read it myself! Hope I score…..something…..

  18. Good idea, Rebecca. I had twenty copies of OKAY FOR NOW earlier, but they’ve all been scooped up by protesters. I still have a couple copies of A MONSTER CALLS for any late comers.

    I will admit we are not the best of protesters. It’s hard to keep track of your feet with your nose in a book. We keep stumbling over fire hydrants and Dachshunds.

    Oh, excuse me for a moment. “Opens tent flap to urgent knocking”

    This just in, two cases of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS just showed up.

    First come, first serve.

  19. Eugh! Those Conspiracies have been Undead since last year, don’t they smell by now?

  20. Oh wow! I was hoping Drawing from Memory would win–it’s nice to see a picture book (and a nonfiction one!) make it into the next round.

  21. I’m rereading Drawing from Memory in celebration, and noticed something odd in the jacket copy. There is a sentence that reads “As World War II raged, Allen was further inspired to consider questions of his own heritage and the motivations of those around him.” Did I miss something? I thought the war ended when Allen was 8…several years before he became Noro Shinpei’s apprentice.

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