Title: A Song for Cambodia
Author: Michelle Lord
Illustrator: Shino Arihara
Publisher: Lee & Low Books
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 5.4
Concepts: human resources, scarcity, child labor
Review: The genocidal Pol Pot regime that ruled and terrorized Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 makes for a difficult subject to broach with children. Michelle Lord and Shino Arihara take on this dark topic with skill and subtlety, yielding a story that is both insightful and moving. The book begins with the happy and relatively carefree days of Arn Chorn-Pond and his family in a rural Cambodian village, with descriptions of a thriving open-air market and the sounds of music and laughter. This way of life quickly changed for Arn when, like they did across Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge soldiers destroyed Arn’s village, split up his family, and sent him to a children’s labor camp.
Arn may have succumbed to the atrocious conditions at the labor camp were it not for his volunteering to join a musical group meant to entertain the guards. He learned how to play a wooden string instrument called the khim and quickly became the best player, a feat that saved his life and enabled him to endure four difficult years at the labor camp. When Arn was sent to fight as a child soldier, he escaped to the Thai border and ultimately was adopted by a volunteer clergyman. In his new American home, Arn used his music to heal on the inside as his nightmares slowly turned into dreams of returning to Cambodia to help others who had survived the pain and suffering.
The book, appropriate for children who are mature enough to handle such a tough subject, ends with a hopeful tone. Similarly, the illustrations have a realistic but gentle quality. The author provides a detailed afterword about the inspiring humanitarian work that Arn Chorn-Pond has pursued in his adult years in an effort to revive Cambodia’s classical arts and music. What a contribution that this man’s story, which has been told in leading U.S. newspaper, radio, and television outlets, is now accessible to children in this carefully written and illustrated book.
Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children