When you travel to a place for just a few days, you can’t do much more than get a glimpse of it. Enough to raise questions. Enough to change you just a little, shake up your complacency. But apart from the place I am there to see, wherever I travel, I usually find myself looking for two things: children’s books and Indian restaurants.
As a result, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, somewhere among the archeology and mythology and the triumph of the trees, somewhere between a trek into the jungle and a welcome dinner at New Delhi Indian Restaurant, I found a bookstore. I looked for children’s books. I found slim pickings, mostly reprints of Eric Carle and some Japanese manga. A recent LitHub daily informed me that the Cambodian literary scene is burgeoning after a long hiatus. The Mekong Review is on a mission, to find writers who will create a new literature in English, produce writing to express “local soul” and “connect each of the countries through which the Mekong runs.”
So I started thinking, what about books for children? For the sweet daughter of the owners of that New Delhi restaurant, who rode off on her bike to buy okra for the dinner we ordered late at night? The kids in uniform we saw filing to school through the neighborhoods of Siem Reap? Yuri Wellington, the Executive Director of Teach Cambodia, Inc., asks these questions as well. Unsurprisingly, she finds that most books about Cambodia that are available to children in North America focus on the years of genocide. They are worthy books:
- Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith, illustrated by Sopaul Nhem
- A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O’Brien
- A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Shino Arihara
But should they be the only story? The years of horror are important to remember, sure. But it seems self-evident that healing ought to matter more. Much more than a single horrific memory, especially in a land with a vast and ancient history, in which musicians missing limbs are a constant reminder of the terrors of war and genocide. Cambodian children do not need to be defined by a single national trauma that happened before they were born.
So where are the other children’s stories of Cambodia? Wellington suggests a few titles, mostly from NGOs, sometimes a bit message-y. But here, she says, look at this video. Look at these children, hungry to love books.