Thank you for being part of my children’s book! I’m very excited to work with you on this project and I appreciate your generous participation in the illustration process, and for volunteering your artistic skills to contribute to the learning process for underprivileged and underrepresented Cambodian children.
The book we are creating is geared towards children living in Cambodia, specifically in rural areas. The imagery and topics featured in the book represent the everyday lives of these children, who mostly live on subsistence farms in small villages.
Life for these children is extremely different from life for American children. Their parents were born into a country completely decimated by the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s with civil war still raging in parts of the country until 1999. The grandparents of these children are extraordinarily lucky to have survived the genocide. In the four years he was in power, fanatic communist dictator, Pol Pot, was responsible for the deaths of approximately 3 million people, about half from execution, and the other half from disease and starvation.
The cities of Cambodia were all evacuated. Pol pot wanted to radically change Cambodia into a communist society where 100% of the people worked for “The Organization,” primarily in agriculture. To do this, he felt it was necessary to rid the country of all political leaders, artists, musicians, religious figures including Buddhist monks, teachers, ethnic minorities, etc. During the Khmer Rouge regime, being literate was a death sentence. Musicians burned their instruments and feigned new professions. Eating a tomato from your own garden was punishable by death. Children were separated from their families and sent to forced labor camps. Later they were forced to become child soldiers. Couples were separated and relocated and forced to remarry in order to prevent organization or dissidence.
Those who were deemed by the Khmer Rouge to be dissidents were tortured and brutally executed, then buried in tens of thousands of mass graves around the country. They were often held in one of the infamous Khmer Rouge prison camps, such as Toul Sleng (S-21) where they were detained for months in subhuman conditions only to be tortured and later executed. All but a handful of the country’s master musicians, visual artists, actors, dancers, teachers, monks, and educated leaders remained after 1979. Cambodian traditional and contemporary arts, theatre, opera, religious traditions, education system, and literary culture were lost.
Today, Cambodia enjoys relative peace, stability, a growing tourist industry, and a strong international business and investment scene. There is at the moment a budding, but still very underdeveloped Cambodian arts and culture community.
My goal with this book is to contribute to the extremely small amount of literature available to children which reflects the experience of Cambodian children. Each page of the book will contain English text and its Khmer translation. The high quality and visually captivating illustrations will engage the children and spark their interest in the world around them. But the most important thing about this book is that it will reflect the experience of the Cambodian child reading it.
If Cambodian children are fortunate enough to have access to learning materials, they are almost exclusively made overseas and are therefore culturally irrelevant. For example, a basic English book about fruit which was printed in the UK, might feature many fruits such as cranberries and blueberries which do not exist in Cambodia and therefore are somewhat useless for the child to learn. Most of the children in Cambodia who will read this book will have never seen a book which features Cambodian objects or experiences. Cambodian children who read this book and future books I produce will see themselves in the material, peaking their interest, and, by embracing aspects of the Cambodian culture, will make the process of reading more accessible. I want Cambodian children to feel that their culture is valued and important on the world stage. I want Cambodian children to know other people all around the world are interested in their lives, their experiences, and their stories. I want Cambodian children to feel that they too can write stories about their lives.
My inspiration for writing this book comes from my first volunteering experience, working with children who live at the garbage dump in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Hundreds of families lived in and around the dump where they spent their days scavenging through toxic waste to extract aluminum cans and plastic bottles to sell for a small rebate. They risked their lives each day dodging garbage trucks and bulldozers, many barefoot, wading through the city’s trash for about $1 USD per day. This was one of my first experiences interacting with Khmer children. Despite their horrific circumstances, these children were upbeat, friendly, and interested in the outside world. I always wished I could have done more for these children.
However, over the years spent in Cambodia, I was able to work with children in some small ways. Please see a 3 minute video I created in 2013 about an “Art Day” I did with some Cambodian children in a village in rural Svay Rieng province with a small donation from NGO IFACA Bhutan:http://vimeo.com/60718852.
This book is inspired by a 1949 book called The Important Book By Margaret Wise Brown, who also wrote the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon. The book highlights individual objects from an American child’s everyday life with short, poetic descriptions. Some examples include snow, rain, shoes, and a spoon.
Cornish and Antioch creative writing professor and author, Carolyn Hall has volunteered her time and expertise for the writing portion of the book. Together, we are interpreting The Important Book for a Cambodian audience, replacing each item featured in the book with something commonly found in rural Cambodian life.
As I said before, I am extremely excited to be working with you all and thank you in advance for contributing your artistic skills to this project!