Monday, May 19, 2008

A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Shino Arihara

Reading level: Grades 4 and up
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Lee & Low Books (March 30, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1600601391
ISBN-13: 978-1600601392
Source of book: Review copy from publisher

Every now and then, I come across a story of survival that is truly amazing and defeats all odds. Arn Chorn-Pond's story as told in A Song for Cambodia written by Michelle Lord and illustrated by Shino Arihara is one of them.

Arn had a happy childhood full of music, love, and laughter in his small Cambodian village until Khmer Rouge soldiers invaded his village in 1975 and tore his family apart. A brief history of Khmer Rouge's invasion on Cambodia in the 1970's is included in the foreward. Led by Pol Pot, the intent was to turn Cambodia into a communist country, but the Khmer Rouge used violence and terror in their attempt and ultimately killed 1.7 million men, women, and children during their 4 year reign.

Arn Chorn-Pond was one of the lucky children who survived, but it was not an easy feat. When he was separated from his family, we was sent to a children's work camp. With no shoes and little to eat, Arn was forced to work in the rice paddies. When the soldiers asked for volunteers to join a musical group, Arn volunteered and learned to play the khim, a wooden string instrument. He luckily had a talent for this instrument which ended up saving his life in the camp. Without giving too much away, Arn managed to escape the camp, and through even more adversity, ended up surviving and was adopted by a missionary who brought him to the United States.

The afterword tells how Arn used his good fortune to give back to Cambodia and help rebuild and bring music back to a war-torn country.

Without going into graphic details, Michelle Lord tells the true story of the horrors Arn and many other Cambodians faced. Ms. Lord masterfully tells the story in a way that is appropriate for and not condescending to children, yet she doesn't sugar coat the facts. We see Arn and his mother tearfully clinging to each other as the soldiers invade their village; we see children being led into a forest to be killed; we see Arn struggle with adapting to a new culture and experience nightmares and sadness for the loss of his family. The reader is left with no doubt that something terrible has happened.

Shino Arihara's gouache illustrations are mostly done in muted earth tones, depicting the dark and sad tone of the story. We see brighter colors at the beginning of the story before the invasion and again at the end when Arn plays music in his new home.

At the back of the book is a photograph of Arn Chorn-Pond, smiling and standing in front of a house he's building in Cambodia, and a comprehensive list of sources demonstrates the thorough research Michelle Lord conducted to write Arn's story.

A Song for Cambodia is a touching and inspirational story full of discussion opportunities, making it an excellent addition to a child's home library or a social studies classroom.

Visit the Nonfiction Monday roundup at Picture Book at the Day.

If you have a review of A Song for Cambodia, leave a comment with your link, and I'll post it here.


  1. Wow, this sounds incredible. I started to do some reading about Cambodia a while ago and it was so depressing I couldn't do it. I'd love to hear about it when there is actually hope at the end--not to discount the seriousness of the situation, though. That's the nice thing about children's books, I guess.

  2. Rebecca,
    It really is a great book, and Michelle Lord does a great job of not downplaying the severity of the situation. She celebrates Arn's story but also reminds us that nearly two million weren't so lucky.

  3. I hear excellent recommendations about this book, and more for the writer, actually I bought the book the last week, and I started to read it, for now I can say that is a total master piece.

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  7. Arn used his good fortune to give back to Cambodia and help rebuild and bring music back to a war-torn country.