By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
First They Killed My Father
By Loung Ung
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010
At the age of 5, Loung Ung is living in Phnom Penh as the daughter of a high-ranking government official. She enjoys visiting the open markets, chicken fights, eating fried crickets, and sassing her parents.
But then Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge takes over the capital in April 1975, and everyone is forced out of the city. As Ung’s family flees their home and moves from village to village, they have to hide their background of education and privilege in order to survive. Eventually, Ung’s family becomes separated, with Ung becoming a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, and her siblings working in labor camps elsewhere.
“First They Killed My Father” is the true story about Ung’s experiences as a child during the Khmer Rouge’s regime in Cambodia. In her memoir, Ung does not sugar coat what she and her family went through during those years. From the near starvation they endured, to the death of her father, Ung gives readers a child’s perspective on what happened, as she and her siblings slowly worked to find each other and reunite.
This is not an easy story to read and there are particular scenes where readers will undoubtedly need tissues, such as when Ung’s father is forced to leave the family for certain death. But despite this difficulty, it is an important story — one that is not told often enough and not taught enough in schools.
Personally, I found Ung’s story particularly engrossing as I have relatives who also survived the Khmer Rouge’s regime, as well as relatives who did not. When reading about the sacrifices Ung’s family makes in order to stay alive, I can’t help but think about the hardships my own family endured during that time.
As an aside, this book has been turned into a movie by the same name and having seen it, I can say it stays pretty true to Ung’s memoir. I recommend those who have read the book to also watch the film. I watched it with my mother, who worked in the labor camps, and she said it was one of the most realistic portrayals of the Khmer Rouge’s regime that she has seen.
Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh
By Uma Krishnaswami
Tu Books, 2017
It’s spring of 1945 and all 9-year-old Maria Singh wants to do is play softball. As World War II drags on, Maria’s teacher, Miss Newman, becomes inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League, and forms the first-ever girls’ softball team in Yuba City, Calif.
But as enthusiastic as Maria is to join the team, the realities of life stand in the way. With a father from India and a mother from Mexico, Maria and her younger brother get a firsthand look at the prejudices that prevail in their community, as well as the discriminatory laws of the land. And soon, the family are on the brink of losing their farm.
As Maria’s passion for softball continues to grow, so does her passion to stand up for herself and others, and for what is right.
Maria is a strong young girl who is not without flaws. She can sometimes be selfish, often going after and doing what she wants, while forgetting her responsibilities and commitments to others. But that is what makes her human and relatable for readers. She makes mistakes and learns from them and works to not make them again. That’s something readers of all ages can strive to do.
In addition to introducing readers to a strong protagonist, “Step Up to the Plate” also highlights a little-known slice of American history. I have to admit that personally, I did not know anything about the “Hindu Mexicans” living in California. Krishnaswami’s story also highlights the difficulties these families faced with discriminatory laws that wouldn’t allow certain groups to own land. She shows readers how some abstract and sometimes confusing laws and policies can have dire consequences on real people — something we can all remember to keep in mind in this day and age.
By Supriya Kelkar
Tu Books, 2017
It’s 1942 in India and Mahatma Gandhi is asking Indians to give one family member to the freedom movement, as the country works toward independence from Great Britain.
Ten-year-old Anjali is crushed at the thought of her father joining the fight and risking his life. But then she learns it will actually be her mother who will join the fight. And with this new change comes adjustments Anjali and her family must make to improve the country and use “ahimsa,” or non-violent resistance. Those adjustments include Anjali giving up her prettiest garments, as the family trades in their foreign-made clothes for homespun clothes. And when her mother decides to reach out to the Dalit community, or the “untouchables” in Indian society, Anjali is forced to get over her prejudices and really think about things.
Then Anjali’s mother is jailed and it is up to Anjali to take over her mother’s work and make sure her part in the Indian independence movement is done.
“Ahimsa” is based on Kelkar’s great-grandmother’s experiences working with Gandhi and offers readers a glimpse of a time in history that many Americans may not know too much about. I admit that I didn’t actually know too much about India’s fight for independence before reading this story.
Despite her young age, Anjali is a character readers of all ages can look up to. While she may come off as superficial, the work she does with her mother and eventually, in place of her mother, causes her to question things and better understand how the world works. She sees that things are not always black and white. People are not always the same as the labels society puts on them. And that is a lesson everyone can learn.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.