We are excited to join Kidlit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year. From July-August, our reading theme is about “Scarred Souls and Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace.” These two books are in keeping with a subtheme that I shared during my Monday reading post. They show how music can be a transformative experience in the most dire of circumstances. The last book Music for Alice is something that I already shared here a few years back, so I will just be sharing a snapshot of my thoughts here.
A Song for Cambodia
Written by: Michelle Lord Illustrated by: Shino Arihara
Published by: Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2008
Borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.
The story begins with a beautiful description of what life is like “In a country of sugar palms, whispering grasses, and bright sunshine.” The sights, sounds, and even the smells are very familiar to me – reminding me of home and water buffaloes and the marketplace, and children roaming the streets, and yes the beautiful music shared among family.
This simple, idyllic existence, however, was disrupted by the presence of the Khmer Rouge or the “Red Khmers” in their once-peaceful town. There were loud explosions everywhere and the sounds of children being torn apart from their parents. The hard faces of soldiers with threatening guns replaced the sounds of the songbirds. The chanting of the monks were silenced. Music was nowhere to be found.
This image for me was particularly striking: the play in perspective, the dark clouds overhead, the children fleeing from the oncoming trucks filled with soldiers about to take over this deserted land, the water buffalo uncertain about all that is going on as seen in the sidelines. There is desolation, darkness, and fear.
Arn was forcibly torn apart from his family and was sent to a children’s work camp where they are required to work in the rice paddies from sun up til sun down. They were not given any food to eat by the soldiers, and so they relied on “dragonflies, beetles, or grubs to eat.” Arn’s entire world has fallen apart into mud, monsoon rains, and blisters on his bare feet. “Arn yearned for his home, full of joyful music and the comfort of his mother’s hum.”
Arn’s life changed when the soldiers asked for volunteers to join a musical group. Arn raised his hand. That singular act, unknown to him at the time, was his deliverance. It was interesting to discover from the book how music is created in Cambodia:
Arn’s father had told his son that Cambodian music existed only in memory. Songs were passed down from a parent to a child or from a master to a student. There were no written compositions.
Arn learned how to play the khim by striking strings on it with bamboo mallets from “a man with white hair and sad eyes.” Given his talent and yearning for music, he soon became the best student. The soldiers gathered together the two best khim players including Arn, and led the others away with the old master, never to be seen again.
Arn tapped out his songs while the other children worked. He saw them tilt their heads to catch the tunes in the muggy air. A few closed their eyes as they twisted rice seedlings into the muddy ground. The music took them far from the rice fields too.
I did not know about Arn Chorn-Pond until I read this picturebook biography. The Afterword is amazingly detailed. There is also a list of resources from books, films, interviews, as well as web resources and online periodicals. The back matter provided a great deal of information about how Arn survived and the many humanitarian acts he has spearheaded to help rebuild the lives of people in Cambodia as he grew older. One of his most important endeavors is the Cambodian Living Arts Program which he initiated in 1998 to revive the traditional art forms of Cambodia.
Returning again to Cambodia, Arn searched high and low for the musical masters of long ago. He found an old opera star digging through trash. A percussionist trained at the Royal Palace was wandering the streets homeless. A master of wind instruments who was left partially deaf by gunfire was living in a crumbling shack. Other once-famous artists were working as taxi drivers or barbers. Arn brought them together to record their songs and to teach children traditional Cambodian music.
This is truly an inspiring and beautiful story of the triumph of the human spirit to overcome, and how music can provide a path to wholeness and redemption. Here is Arn Chorn-Pond. Watch his story and listen to him speak about his life.
Music for Alice
Written and Illustrated by: Allen Say
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 2004. Walter Lorraine Books.
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
I have already written my review of this picturebook here. However, rather than ask you to click on the link, I decided to just copy a few fragments here and there that seemed most relevant given our current reading theme.
This picture book is based on the life story of Alice Sumida, a dancer in her late 80s. How Allen decided to write this story is a wondrous tale in and of itself. In thisinterview featured in the Japanese American National Museum page, Allen shared the little details that sparked his interest:
“I heard about Alice from a great shiatsu master, a strapping man in his early forties, while he worked on me,” Allen Say recalls. “I had been coaching the shy man in the art of asking women for dates; when he finally did get a date, the woman turned out to be an 87-year-old dancer. That got my immediate attention.” (source here).
This little snippet reminded me that for a writer, what is truly essential is one’s eye for a lost fragment, a distinct detail from a life story narrative, and that avid curiosity and empathy for another person’s life. Spoken in the first-person narrative, Allen Say truly had to listen to the music in Alice’s soul for him to find the words and the perfect image to render justice to Alice’s life.
Alice is a second-generation immigrant. From California, she moved to Seattle Washington where her husband Mark had a business selling seeds to farmers. Their lives, however, changed drastically with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese airplanes.
This is a part of history I am not that aware of, and learning about it through picture books makes my heart break into a million fragments. However, rather than concentrate on how Japanese Americans were rounded up and locked in internment camps – Say focused on another group of Japanese Americans who volunteered to work for a group of White American farmers who are looking for people to work on their fields. Alice recounted her experience during this time:
We watched the other workers and tried to do what they did. In the heat, they wavered like slow dancers. Even the thought of dancing didn’t cheer me very much.
When we had finished the job, a government agent came and told us we could go where we liked, as long as we stayed in the county. We were still prisoners, I thought, in a bigger prison.
Turning Stones into Colorful Gladiolas. Since it was important to grow food during this time, there was a lot of government support provided to farmers. With the loan that Alice’s husband got from the government, they were able to lease two hundred acres of desert land. However, the land was hard and filled with stones: “Our first harvest was a harvest of stones” Alice recalls.
This picture book shows the value of hard work, courage, persistence – even in the face of overwhelming odds. It also highlights the gift of foresight and captures the resiliency of the human spirit to thrive. For a dancer like Alice, the uncertainty, the risks that her husband took in planting something so out of the ordinary, the continual struggle to survive – seemed daunting, yet the music within her never failed to provide her with hope and faith that things will be different.
Dancing among the flowers. Soon enough, they were able to transform the unyielding land into a field of vibrant, colorful flowers as it became the country’s largest gladiola bulb farm. People from everywhere started trickling in just to see their flowers.
Alice shared the beautiful experience of seeing the flowers bloom before their eyes:
As they grew, they sprouted buds and then bloomed. Two hundred acres of gladioli – sword lilies of pink and white, yellow and purple, apricot and orange. For a moment I forgot about all the hard work in the desert, and even of the war. I wanted to dance through the field. I had almost forgotten that feeling.
This book renders a different meaning to the hackneyed phrase ‘take time to smell the flowers.’ However transient and fleeting, this field of wondrous beauty is enough to share colored joy and sweet-smelling music – reminding us that if we look hard enough, we can always find something to dance about.
Reading Challenge Update: 150 (25)
what pretty picture books, will have to see if my library has them!
I am always learning new books thanks to your themes that you do. Thanks for sharing them. I need to see if my library has both of these books.
Wow. What incredible titles. Finding I had to breathe deeply reading your descriptions. Such stories. Thanks for sharing them here.
I’m glad there are writers who happen upon people that many may not have heard of but whose stories can touch and transform! Thanks for sharing!
A Song for Cambodia sounds heavy, but so important. (Quite frankly, both titles seem like great picks.) Thank you for sharing these new titles with me.
Looks like two excellent books to share. I know my teachers will enjoy knowing about these. Thanks so much!
I love that you find picture books around a theme. I’ve been meaning to tell you that. What a wonderful idea, and you always share such powerful, beautiful books. Thank you!