Language Inside – book review

The Language Inside
by Holly Thompson
Novel in verse
Realistic Fiction
* * * * Stars (Great!)

Emma Karas’ family moves back to Massachusetts from Japan, where she has lived her whole life, when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer.  It is right after the Tsunami disaster strikes and Emma feels terrible that she can’t be with her friends and their loved ones, helping them in the aftermath.  Although she’s fluent in English, Emma prefers to speak Japanese.  And even though she’s Caucasian, she feels Japanese.  Lonely and feeling like everything she is and everything she knows is slipping away from her, Emma begins volunteering at a long-term care center, helping Zena – a resident who is almost completely paralyzed – write poems.  She also meets fellow volunteer, Samnang, who is friendly, Cambodian, and seems to like her.  Emma starts to think that maybe being in the States for awhile won’t be so bad after all.

This novel in verse is beautifully written.  Holly Thompson gives her characters – especially Emma – lovely words with which to express themselves.  The verse format lends itself well to Emma’s Japaneseness, too, being spare, but speaking volumes – like the haiku she sometimes writes.  Emma’s experience – of being a stranger in a strange place – is interesting, too.  People have certain expectations of her based on her appearance.  They don’t expect her to be different on the inside.  Wonderful.


at this school in Massachusetts
I listen to clips of conversations
move from class to class
biology to art to English to Chinese
wondering who of these 1,200 students I should talk to
and how I can begin conversations
or try to make friends
with my filling
so different from theirs

I don’t know when to say what
I don’t know if something’s funny or not
I don’t get sarcasm
layered over sarcasm
and jokes made by
unjoking faces

I know how to read silence in Japan
I can read the air in Japan
but I don’t have a clue
how to read the air here
(p. 78)

Reviewed by YA Librarian


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