I read several books set in SE Asia, but the two that really stuck with me were historical fiction set during the terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, trying to see how two children survived this horror. A Song for Cambodia is a picture book that introduces the story of Cambodia and what happened to ordinary families when the Khmer Rouge soldiers took over. The Stone Goddess is a powerful young adult novel that develops a similar story further, following a young girl, Nakri, as she and her brother and sister end up in a labor camp.
A Song for CambodiaA Song for Cambodia is the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond's survival of the Khmer Rough work camps. Arn's early life in rural Cambodia "was filled with the sweet sounds of music and laughter." But in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, finally reaching Arn's village. He was taken from his family and put into a children's labor camp, forced to work in the rice paddies. One day, the soldiers asked for volunteers to play music and Arn raised his hand. He survived the camp by learning to play the khim, a traditional Cambodian instrument. Eventually, Arn escaped to Vietnam and was adopted by an American priest who brought him to the U.S. This is a simple, but powerful introduction to the horrors of the war. The illustrations are clear and convey the emotions of the story, without being graphic or overly violent. I highly recommend this picture book as an introduction for middle school students (age 10 and up) learning about this cruel period of history. To learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond's story, see his story on You-Tube.
written by Michelle Lord
illustrated by Shiino Arihara
NY: Lee & Low Books, 2008.
ages 10 - 14
The Stone GoddessThe Stone Goddess also follows a child sent to labor camps by the Khmer Rouge, but this story follows Nakri, a 12-year old living in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Nakri's family fled the city when the soldiers invade, going to live with her grandparents in a small village. But they were still not safe. She was forced to go to a labor camp with her older sister and brother. Nakri's sister was trained in classical Cambodian dance, and this beautiful, almost spiritual dance provided an emotional rock for Nakri.
by Minfong Ho
NY: Scholastic, 2003
ages 12 - 16
The story is riveting, and at times horrifying as you watch the soldiers threatening Nakri's sister and brother, and you realize how many children were dying. Eventually, Nakri and her brother reunited with their parents and emigrated to the United States. But Nakri struggled. "I should have felt happy with this new life, but there was an air of unreality to it all, as if my eyes were floating above me, and watching me go through the motions of living hero."
The author of The Stone Goddess, Minfong Ho, was born in Burma and grew up in Thailand, working in 1980 in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. It is clear through her novel that she empathizes deeply with Khmer refugees like Nakri. It's a powerful story that would captivate tweens and teens (grades 5 and above) who want to know more about this hard period of history and how one family struggled to survive.
This book review is part of the One Shot World Tour: SE Asia, sponsored by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. The idea of this World Tour is to read and review one book either written by an author from the South East Asia region or set in that part of the world. For the purposes of this tour, Southeast Asia consists of the following countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. For some more great ideas, head over to Chasing Ray.
Both of these copies came from my local library. Find them at your local public library, an independent bookstore or at Amazon.