a harrowing, important, triumphant and inspiring story

by Icy Smith, illustrated by Sopaul Nhem - East West Discovery Press, 2010
ages 10 years and up / powerful lives

Roger and I recently visited Cambodia – Angkor Wat had long been on my would-love-to-visit list. (It was just as fascinating and beautiful as expected.) 

But we were unsure about visiting The Killing Fields and S21 Prison.

We’d read a bit about the Khmer Rouge and that awful time and of course we’d seen the movie - in the end we decided to visit both sites. I’m so glad we did.

In spite of ‘knowing’ a reasonable amount about the history, it was a whole different experience to be there and ‘feel’ the history. Still I’m not completely sure that I would take children to the sites. It’s confronting and difficult to process, the whole experience stays with you and muddles your brain for a while – probably a really good thing for adults.

That’s one of the things I love about picture books. They have the ability to help us feel the history as well as know the history, but they can do it in a way that leaves us with a sense of beauty and hope. 

Half Spoon of Rice does this brilliantly. 

It’s a generic story of a boy whose family are swept up in the Khmer Rouge genocide.

He’s separated from his family, suffers through desperate privations, is terribly scared, and somehow survives to be reunited with his family.

And yet because it is a beautifully worded and illustrated book it carries a sense of hope rather than despair.

This is not a true story in the sense that it is not about one particular child, rather it is representative of the stories of millions of Cambodian people. Neither the words nor the pictures sugar-coat the events of the time – both lead us to empathy and outrage – but they are also beautiful, hinting at the beauty that remains in the boy Nat and his friend Malis.

There is however nothing beautiful or hopeful about the actions and ideologies of the Khmer Rouge – and this is also clear in Half Spoon of Rice. The contrast is striking. 

Reading a book like this to a child requires some forethought and some time. The moment needs to be right – there needs to be time to talk and process the story after reading it. Ideally, an adult would have some additional knowledge about the genocide and the goodness and life that is wonderfully in motion in Cambodia today. But if those things are in place a wonderful experience beckons.

Half Spoon of Rice is perfect for talking about:

The importance of freedom, politics, governance, and power

The effects of war

The harm caused through violence

The profound impact of family love

The worth of friendships

The blessings of peace

The value of empathy; and

The privilege of plentiful food.

I’m not sure that there is anything more important or more helpful in preventing future genocides than engaging children with history and with ideas and building in them empathy and awareness. Half Spoon of Rice is perfect for this sort of learning.

You can buy Half Spoon of Rice via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository

Names in this book - Nat, Malis