Patricia McCormick, Author
Balzer & Bray, May 2012, Fiction
Suitable for: YA Fiction, ages 14 and up
Themes: Child Soldiers, Cambodia History, Courage, Genocide, Khmer Rouge, War
Opening Synopsis: “When Arn Chorn-Pond was eleven, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, came to power in Cambodia, herding the entire population to work camps in the countryside. Families were separated, and everyone, including children, was forced to work long, grueling hours digging ditches and growing rice…Nearly two million people died — one quarter of the population. They were buried in mass graves called the Killing Fields. It is the worst genocide ever inflicted by a country on its own people.”
Patricia McCormick, who is known for taking on complex and tough subjects, has done it again with the story about the genocide that occurred in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia and tortured and killed its own people. This extraordinary story about Arn Chorn-Pond, an 11-year-old boy who survived, is true. The author spent two years with Arn, retracing his life during the three years, eight months and twenty days reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge. This book is powerful, emotional, horrific, gruesome, and brutal. It is an important book for young people and adults to learn about this period of history. Yet, it is an inspirational story of survival, courage, hope and a testimony to human spirit.
Arn is a care-free boy catching frogs with his best friend and selling ice cream with his brother. One day an army of soldiers dressed in black enter the village and force everyone to the countryside. His aunt, four sisters and a brother gather a few belongings and food, and join the throngs of people who are walking away from their homes. Arm works in the rice fields until, the Khmer Rouge separate him from his family and send him to another labor camp. He watches starving kids die in the rice fields, and he tells himself that he must never fall down. Arn finds every possible means to survive.
When the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument, Arn volunteers without knowing a single note. The Khmer Rouge want to hear revolutionary songs and Arn becomes a very good musician. He does so to keep himself and other kids alive. He also learns to dance and entertain which gives him more freedom in the camp and access to more food, which he sneaks to kids. Arn is taken to the Mango Trees, where he sees the piles of earth and smells the stench of death. He knows these Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge force him to do unthinkable things. There is so much death, starvation and brutality, that we see Arn transform over time into an emotionless and numb boy. As the Vietnamese approach, he is given a gun and used as a child soldier and spy. He quickly realizes that the Khmer Rouge is using the kids as bait in the jungles. He is always running, because if he falls down he knows he won’t get up.
Why I like this book: Patricia McCormick chose to write the book in Arn’s natural speaking voice — broken English. The story is told in first person making it an even more powerful, convincing, and real. In Never Fall Down, McCormick gives Arn a voice to speak his truth and share the pain, which he found cathartic and part of his healing process. He tells his story so people will know first hand what happened. McCormick is the author of Purple Heart, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2009, and SOLD, a National Book Award finalist.
Today Arn Chorn-Pond has dedicated his life to peace and humanitarian causes around the world. He founded the Children of War, an organization that aids children held hostage by war and violence. He is the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, a group that helps preserve the traditional arts of Cambodia by pairing young students with the few master musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge. He has received the Amnesty International Rights Award, the Reebok Human Rights Award, and the Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award. He lives in Cambodia and spends part of his year speaking in the United States.