house without walls – middle grade book recommendation

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Title: house without walls

Author: Ching Yeung Russell

 Publisher: Yellow Jacket (Little Bee Books), 2019

Ages: 11-14

Themes: refugees, Vietnam, Vietnam boat people, Vietnamese, Chinese, refugee camps, pirates

Novel in verse


An hour before dawn, Ah Mah and my ma want us to have a full stomach before we leave home. They stayed up all night, fixing my favorite wantons and Daigo and Dee Dee’s beloved Singapore fried noodles.


For most people, home is a place with four walls. It’s a place to eat, sleep, rest, and live. For a refugee, the concept of home is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-wavering. And often, it doesn’t have any walls at all.

Eleven-year-old Lam escapes from Vietnam with Dee Dee during the Vietnamese Boat People Exodus in 1979, when people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fled their homelands for safety. For a refugee, the trip is a long and perilous one, filled with dangerous encounters with pirates and greedy sailors, a lack of food and water, and even the stench of a dead body on board. When they finally arrive at a refugee camp, Lam befriends Dao, a girl her age who becomes like a sister-a welcome glimmer of happiness after a terrifying journey.

Her journey includes fear, crushing loss, boredom, and some small moments of joy along the way.

Why I like this book:

Written in verse, this novel shares a grueling journey across sea and land where starvation and illness threaten the refugees’ lives lives. Vietnam has fallen to the Vietcong. The American forces have fled and many in Vietnam from various ethnic backgrounds fear for their lives. That is why Lam and Dee Dee are put on a boat and sent out to sea. Their family hopes they will find refuge and make their way to their father who has already fled to San Francisco. 

The reader will be immersed in the trauma experienced on the journey from the first person POV of eleven-year-old Lam. On the flimsy vessels, she, her little brother and the other refugees endure: pirate attacks, lack of food, nausea/vomiting, being urinated on, and corpses (as not everyone made it to shore, alive). Even on land, there is rape, illnesses, insects, snakes, leeches, lack of clean water, and military violence to fear. Despite these dreadful conditions, Lam and dee Dee make friends, and a generous “uncle and auntie” adopt them and care for them despite their own grievous devastation. The refugees slowly piece together a way of life as they fight to stay alive, learning to live in a house without walls in the Indonesian refugee camp (a long interim step before being allowed to leave for the USA.)

This story was based on interviews conducted by Russell over many years with Lam (and Dee and many many other refugees.) These facts are related in the prologue that shares a number of details about the real life Lam and Dee Dee as well as other historical facts. Russell shares that because of the target middle grade audience, she toned down the horrors of these refugee journeys. But she doesn’t spare the reader from the courage and tragedy of our young protagonist, and the story remains beautifully authentic. The Vietnam Boat People Exodus dates back 40 years, and yet the telling here is so fresh, and of course so pertinent to our present days, that I highly recommend this title for middle schools libraries and any class units on refugees. With its verse format, it is a quick read; I finished the novel in an evening as was surprised at being moved to tears more than once.


UNHCR has some great resources for teaching about refugees in middle school.

Refugee Week also has some good resources.

Student and Teacher resources for teaching about refugees

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