I was working on book lists for Hmong, Lao, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but it turns out that there are few fiction books on their countries but quite a few on Cambodia. Like Japanese American books that mostly focus on WWII internment, many fiction books revolve on Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a heartbreaking event in history.
Still, there are other sides of the Cambodian story that emerges from this book list: folk tales that turn on the clever rabbit (the peasant who outwits those in power), the refugee immigrant, and the lives of Cambodians post-war.
This list can also be used as part of a discussion on racism, and who is an “American.” I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did. You can also use this list as a companion to Holocaust books for kids.
If you have other books to add on Cambodia, Laos, the Hmong, or Vietnam, I’d welcome them! Thanks for sharing!
Books for Kids About Cambodia
A refugee’s story of who belongs here in America? After facing the most brutal of regimes, Nary, his grandfather, and uncle are able to leave a refugee camp to relocate to America. Far from being the land of opportunity, they face racism. Similarly, Nary is bullied at school. Use this book to help students understand the refugee experience and to build bridges of understanding and compassion. Italicized notes on each page give a deeper view of the immigration experience. This book is also great paired with immigration picture books from other countries. [picture book, ages 8 and up]
A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O’Brien
This beautiful story connects a multigenerational Cambodian family from their past to their present, and from Cambodia to the United States. The grandmother is the glue of the family and she tells her grandchildren about the difficult journey she made with her brother and her baby, their mother. The path of stars that guides them to safety is symbolic of all their lost ones as well as her granddaughter whose name means star in Cambodian. When the grandmother’s brother dies — he has returned to Cambodia after the war where he starts a new family — the light goes out from the grandmother. The granddaughter, Dara, knows the path of the stars to bring her back. This is the perfect picture book to introduce children to the plight of the Cambodian refugee. It’s realistic in its depiction but not too scary. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Exotic Fruit by Huy Voun Lee
Huy Voun Lee arrived in New York City at the age of six as a Cambodian refugee. She quickly developed a love for art and Origami. Huy has written and illustrated many books for children using her colorful cut-paper style incorporating Chinese characters into her books. This board book celebrates exotic fruit from all around the world. [board book, ages 1 and up]
Eight-year-old Ary dreams of a better life for herself and her family who live at the poverty line in Phnom Penh. She sells strings of flowers to tourists and has finally saved enough money to buy a wishing bird. Setting a bird free, she believes, will make her wish come true. But the birds in the cage are trained to return, and Ary’s heart is broken when her precious bird flies back to its cage. Still, she perseveres, and carefully observes the birds in the cage. After saving her money, she tries again and breathes out a string of wishes as the bird flies free. Her final wish is for herself: more knowledge. She has always dreamed of going to school and then, one day, to university. Her name, Ary, after all, means “knowledge.” [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino
Little Sap is part of the Cambodian royal dance troupe and they are traveling to France to perform! Their dances tell stories, with hand motions signifying different objects a fruit, flower, or leaf. After their performance, a famous French artist wants to draw them. Monsieur Rodin pulled Little Sap to the front of the line when he sketched the dancers. He ended up choosing three dancers to work with and Little Sap was one of them. They became part of his famous Danseuse Cambogienne sketches. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
This is a delightful read about a lively middle school girl who thinks she is destined to become a major Hollywood starlet. Dara just happens to be adopted from Cambodia, with an older biological brother that she’s close to, and a younger adopted sister from Russia who she constantly fights with. Within this lighthearted story are veins of more serious stuff; Dara’s exploration of her Cambodian side culminates in a decision of whether or not to visit her old orphanage.
Self-introspection also is a leap that Dara takes, which allows her to reassess her acting abilities and her relationship with her sister. Readers will be drawn into this book for its comedic value, but they will also gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be adopted from another country. I highly recommend this book! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
It surprises me that Trouble didn’t win Gary D. Schmidt another Newbery nod. It’s masterfully written, weaving the story of an old-money Blue Blood New England family in a small Maine Town with how racism has shaped them, with both incidents in the past and present. Henry, our middle school protagonist, is grappling with the car accident that put his older “perfect” brother into a coma. As he tries to make his way through the fog that has now beset his family, he unweaves the pieces that lead up to this tragedy; his sea captain ancestor who amassed their family fortune has played a role, a Cambodian boy at his older siblings’ private school is involved, and then there’s this mountain that challenges him to scale it.
Schmidt’s Cambodian character, Chay, has his own story to tell, and unwinds, first in a “misty” way, as italicized teaser paragraphs at the end of the early chapters in the book. When Chay begins to interact with Henry in the story, the reader can see how their lives intersected and how racism has marked their family with “trouble” that they had long been avoiding. Chay’s refugee story is embedded too and gives the reader a non-flinching view of what the boat refugees faced, both in their home country and now in America. This is a book that is difficult to put down, with a story that leaves an indelible impression about white privilege and racism in America. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Parable Picture Book About Refugees
The Little Tree by Muon Van, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi
The little tree let her precious little seed go to a better place where it could grow strong and tall. It was hard for the little tree to do this, and she wasn’t sure for a long time how her little seed was doing, or if she had made the right decision. Finally, one day, a leaf floated back to her. It was her little seed, now tall and bright. And it still remembers the little tree. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Cambodian Folk Tales
From Brother Rabbit Forward: “The diversity of Cambodia’s folktales reflects the country’s long and rich history, which dates bay almost two thousand years ago to the first century AD when its royal courts adopted an alphabet and a legal code.
Traditionally, folktales were told by grandparents to village children in the cool of the evening. More elaborate presentations took the form of folk plays known as yikay.
A husband and wife live happily in their small house but the husband is called to war by the king. He doesn’t want to leave her but he does; vacillating three times before going off to his duty. A tree spirit nearby is intrigued and visits his house. The tree spirit is a shapeshifter who is able to look exactly like her husband, but when the real husband returns, the jig is up. A wise rabbit helps the wife figure out who her real husband really is and how to get rid of the tree spirit. With unexpected twists and turns, this folk tale is an exciting page-turner without any violence happening to anyone. The moral of the story is that wisdom can fool even spirits. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Two Brothers by Mingong Ho and Saphan Ros, illustrated by Jean & Mou-Soenm Tseng
Two orphan brothers grow up in a Buddhist monastery and decide to go out into the world. Their Abbott gives them each piece of advice, but one brother doesn’t follow it. Cambodians traditionally believe that one’s fortune is preordained, though they also, like Buddhists, believe that the individual makes choices that affect whether or not their destiny will come true. This folk tale shows the dichotomy of beliefs. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Angkat: The Cambodian Cinderella by Jewell Reinhart Coburn, illustrated by Eddie Flotte
The Cambodian version of Cinderella seems very familiar until it takes a surprising turn. Angkat is the daughter who is forced into a life of servitude once her father remarries and the new stepmother and stepsister mistreat her. Her kindness to a fish is repaid with two golden slippers; one of which ends up in the prince’s hands. He searches for the girl who fits the shoe, finding Angkat. They get married but then this Cinderella story continues. The stepmother, stepsister, and even the father are jealous and plot to kill her. There are more intrigue and supernatural magic at work. Read the book to find out the ending! [folk tale picture book ages 4 and up]
Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale by Minfong Ho and Saphan Ros, illustrated by Jennifer Hewitson
The forward is so interesting: “One of the recurring themes in Cambodian folktales is that of a small but quick-witted animal or person getting the better of someone stronger and meaner but not as bright. In Cambodian society, farmers and villagers saw themselves as small and weak compared to the powerful landlords, soldiers, and kings above them, and they reveled in stories in which the tables were turned and the weaker came out on top. Nationally too, Cambodia has often seen itself as the weaker nation among stronger, more aggressive neighbors.”
Brother Rabbit uses his wits to get a crocodile to ferry it across a river, steal bananas from a woman, and get an elephant to unstick it from a stump. He’s not the nicest in the way he tricks and taunts, but his cleverness and courage under fire serve him well. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Khmer Rouge Cambodia for Kids
Little Brother by Allan Baillie
Vithy and his older brother Mang escape from the Big Paddy rice fields, the sole survivors of their family. On the run from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, Vithy is separated from his brother in the forest and must find his way to safety on his own, hoping against hope, that the soldiers they encountered have not killed his brother. While this book is not as graphically violent, it still gives a realistic and page-turning view of life under the Khmer Rouge. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Shino Arihara
This is the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of Cambodian Volunteer for community Development which encourages community service and cultural rebuilding in Cambodia. His own story of survival during the Khmer Rouge regime is heartbreaking. From a musical family himself, music saved his life. Now he works to save traditional Cambodian music. Use this book to teach kids about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as to inspire them on how a single individual can save the world. This is also a book that celebrates music as more than just entertainment. [picture book, ages 8 and up]
Half a Spoon of Rice: A Survival Story of the Cambodian Genocide by Icy Smith, illustrated by Sopaul Nhem
The Cambodian genocide is a difficult topic to teach children, but this picture book balances the horrors with moments of humanity and kindness between two children. With chilling similarities to the Jewish Holocaust, families are separated and forced into work camps. Food is scarce. The young boy in the story boy spends four long years starving in this labor camp, surviving on half a spoon of rice a day, until the Vietnamese Liberation Army troops free them. Pair this with a unit on the Holocaust or other genocides in world history. [picture book, ages 10 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.