Books about genocide usually prompt images of the Holocaust, but in Never Fall Down, National Book Award finalist Patricia McCormick highlights another equally horrific but lesser-known mass killing during the Khmer Rouge’s overthrow of Cambodia in 1975. Based on actual events experienced by Arn Chorn-Pond, a human rights activist, with additional details supplemented by the author’s meticulous research, this fictionalized account is told from Arn’s perspective. His haunting voice—“You not living. And you not dead. You living dead.”—immediately drives the momentum of this page-turner.

Eleven-year-old Arn suddenly goes from skipping school to sell ice cream in order to raise money for his caregiver aunt and numerous siblings, to walking a long road with hundreds of thousands of his fellow Cambodians. Separated from the rest of his family, he is taken to a Khmer Rouge camp, where everyone is given the same black pajamas, told that it’s now Year Zero and to forget all past knowledge, and made to grow rice around the clock. For four years, he nearly starves to death and witnesses murder after murder.

Arn learns quickly to never fall down or display weakness, to hide his emotions and to remain invisible. After showing an aptitude for music, he is forced in just days to learn to play the khim, similar to the dulcimer, and the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda songs, which are broadcast throughout the camp to drown out the sounds of Cambodians being slaughtered. Both music and his own resilience save him from the now infamous killing fields. It is this resourcefulness that leads Arn to finally flee the Khmer Rouge, spending months alone in the jungle, until, just barely alive, he reaches a refugee camp in Thailand.

That one teen could survive so much cruelty is nearly inconceivable if not for the fact that Arn’s tale is true. McCormick brings his story vividly to life in a book that readers won’t be able to put down.

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