The story begins on Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) in 1975. Young Hà is celebrating the New Year with her family and praying for good fortune to follow them in the coming year. She is ten years old and lives with her hard working and gentle mother, her older brother Vu who studies engineering, her older brother Quang, still in high school who enjoys the culinary arts, and her brother Khoi who loves animals. All three brothers tease their little sister but as Hà's mother says, "They tease you because they adore you.” The family is grieving the loss of their father who went "missing in action" on a mission for the South Vietnamese Navy nine years ago. Their mother prays for his return each day.
Hà's family faces a difficult choice as the North Vietnamese army closes in and Saigon is at risk of being overtaken. They do not want to leave their homeland. They would have to leave everything behind except what can fit in a few small backpacks. In addition, they feel anguished over leaving without their father, who they dream will return one day. But the family is convinced by their Uncle that the danger is too great to stay. They flee aboard a Navy ship that is repurposed for refugees.
The family boards the crowded ship along with hundreds of others crammed together and makes the slow treacherous journey with very little food and water. They make it to Guam and from there to America along with other refugees who have been sponsored in the United States.
The family is ignored for days until they change their religious status to "Christian". Then, they are taken in by a kindly "Cowboy" who lives in Alabama. Hà imagines that because he wears a cowboy hat and boots that he must own a horse like in the American movies she's seen. His wife is not as generous and scowls at the family, making them feel unwelcome. She is not the only one; the neighbors slam their doors in their faces and make racist remarks. The family faces many uphill battles making their way in an unfamiliar and unfriendly place. At school, Hà has difficulty learning English as it is so different from Vietnamese with completely different grammatical rules and sounds. The students in her class ostracize her and tease her. One boy in particular bullies her regularly. Hà manages to find comfort in two kind friends at school and one neighbor, Mrs. Washington, a retired teacher who tutors her. Hà had always done well in school and excelled in math but in the United States she is made to feel as if she is "stupid". Despite it all, the family faces their many challenges with grace, dignity, and courage.
Author Thanhha Lai wrote the semi-autobiographical story in free verse poetry. Lai said "One day I just started jotting down exactly what Hà would be feeling, lonely, and angry on the playground. The words came out in quick, sharp phrases that captured her feelings in crisp images. These phrases reflected what Vietnamese sounded like. Remember, Hà was thinking in Vietnamese because she hadn't learned English yet. Then I knew I would be able to penetrate her mind by writing in phrases choked with visuals." Readers will come away wiser and more empathetic for gaining a glimpse into the refugee experience through the eyes of the children and families that lived it.