Arn was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, came to power in Cambodia. He was a happy, mischievous kid who hustled for spare change by singing and dancing with his brother, selling ice cream, playing games of chance.
And then the peasant soldiers, wearing black pajamas and hats, came to town. Arn would never be that happy, mischievous boy again.
"Never Fall Down" (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2012), a National Book Award finalist by Patricia McCormick, is based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the genocide inflicted on the Cambodian people. Tens of thousands of people died from starvation, overwork and disease; many more were tortured, killed and buried in mass graves.
When the Khmer Rouge soldiers first come to his town, Arn was happy; the war, they said, was finally over. But soon those with education or money disappear; those who remain are marched into the countryside.
Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a child labor camp, where they work punishing hours under the blazing sun. He watches other children, weak from hunger, disease or exhaustion, die before his eyes.
McCormick uses Arn's distinct and beautiful voice to tell the story of how he survived those brutal years: "I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it's malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself: Never fall down."
One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids play an instrument. Understanding that this may help him survive, Arn volunteers to play in the band — even though he's never played a note in his life. Under the tutelage of an old musician, he quickly learns to play a traditional stringed instrument called the khim.
The beautiful traditional Cambodian songs are forbidden. Instead, he and the other boys play revolutionary songs to bolster the spirits of the workers and, increasingly, to drown out the sounds of soldiers killing people they suspect of being traitors.
Arn is forced to watch, and later take part in, the brutal murder of innocents. He learns the key to survival: "I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live."
Just as the country is about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, he is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier.
Arn escapes from the army; he ends up in a refugee camp in Thailand, very near death from disease and starvation. An American minister adopts Arn and two other Cambodian boys. The final section of the book describes Arn's struggle to overcome the guilt and trauma of his experience with the Khmer Rouge; he has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes around the world.
"Never Fall Down" is not an easy read; there are many scenes of death and graphic violence. But it is also a beautiful and important book.
To learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond, visit http://arnchornpond.com/ .
Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 14 books. You can learn more about her work and read past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com .