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Book Reviews - The Dragon's Song

Book line"Most of us who lived through the 70’s remember the 'Boat People' from Vietnam. Until now, I don’t think I have read (or even heard of) a children’s book about the journey from Vietnam to the United States for so many fleeing Vietnam after the Vietnam War. Binh Pham lived it. Together with R.M. Clark, he has written an engaging tale. The Dragon’s Song is based on a true story. The author himself escaped from the Communist regime.

"In The Dragon’s Song Binh Pham takes his orphaned cousin and is smuggled out of Vietnam to connect with his sister in Rhode Island who has paid handsomely for his smuggling. The treatment they had to endure before their escape as well as the difficult conditions they had to endure during their escape are hard to believe, but I have no doubt they represent the truth. The descriptions may be hard for some to read, but the plot is tastefully done and an important read for pre-teens and young teens.

"One thing I usually like to see in an historical novel is missing. I wish that the author had given some 'historical facts' or maybe a little more about his actual escape. I always enjoy a list of what was true and what was made up. I do appreciate the fact that the authors included a list of Refugee Resources - organizations for readers to connect with and web sites to search for additional information.

"I think that The Dragon’s Song would make an excellent addition to a k-12 Christian school library. It fills a gap in the world of historical fiction for middle school students. Some fifth graders may also be able to handle the content."
~  Jane M. via Amazon

Powerful Music"The horrors of war and its aftermath are often difficult subjects to communicate to young readers accustomed to a fast-paced but bloodless video game world. Occasionally, however, a book makes a lasting impact because it tells a harrowing story through the eyes of their contemporaries from an earlier generation who experienced the ordeal firsthand. “The Diary of Anne Frank” remains a popular and effective educational work today among school children who first encounter the Holocaust through its pages. More recently, the Vietnam War had a profound impact on my generation, but it seems just a page in the history books for young millennials. Authors Binh Pham and R.M. Clark try to remedy this information gap for middle schoolers with “The Dragon’s Song,” a moving, fictional tale based on Binh’s own journey as a refugee from Vietnam to the United States.

"In real life, Binh Pham was one of the “boat people” who emigrated to the United States in the years following the fall of South Vietnam. He collaborated with R.M. Clark, an author of several middle-school novels, to tell a largely factual account of his story intended for younger readers. A young teenage version of Binh Pham (who was a young adult when he came to America) is a supporting character in “The Dragon’s Song.” However, the narrator is Binh’s younger, fictional cousin, Bao Dang. The story begins in 1980 in the former Saigon, where an 11-year-old Bao now lives with Binh’s family. Four years earlier, Bao’s parents were hauled off by the police in the middle of the night, and he never saw them again.

"Bao and Binh have relatives in the United States willing to sponsor them (an enormous advantage for refugees trying to navigate an international bureaucratic maze of red tape). First, however, the two have to get to America, and it’s not just a matter of hopping a jetliner from the Saigon airport. Instead, they travel downriver in a small boat that’s packed with other refugees fleeing the country. Then, they transfer to a larger vessel for the voyage to Indonesia, the site of the first of two refugee camps where the pair will live for almost a year. Finally, they go to a larger, more permanent camp near Singapore.

"Binh, the author, draws on his own experiences in the refugee camps in telling the story. (The fictional Binh even has a severe case of malaria while in the camp, as did his real-life counterpart.) The boat trips are harrowing, with the crews and passengers in danger of arrest while still in Vietnam or being boarded by pirates while on the open seas. Conditions are oppressive, with over a dozen people crammed elbow to elbow for a few days on the river. Life in the camps is somewhat better, but the boys live in barracks-like housing with other families. Food is rationed, and meal selections are minimal. Crime is also a factor in the camps, both from teenaged punks and black marketeers.

"While its description of the camps will probably be an eye-opener for most young readers in the United States today, “The Dragon’s Song” is not a memoir. By fictionalizing the story and telling it through the words of an 11-year-old, the authors can draw readers into sharing Bao and Binh’s experiences. Life isn’t all a horror story for the pair. Instead, there’s plenty of boredom and also a lot of fun. Bao makes new friends, especially when he shows off his soccer skills. He has a book-long love/hate relationship with the water as he eventually learns how to swim. And he also discovers that giving someone the “gift” of a dead snake to cook for dinner isn’t always a smart move.

"What really elevates “The Dragon’s Song,” in my view, is a subplot that gives the book its title. Young Bao is a musical prodigy, with a gift for mastering new musical instruments in a matter of hours. (He demonstrates this talent by serenading his fellow campmates with some harmonica blues.) He receives a dragon-head talisman as a gift from an older woman in the camp. Bao then uses the talisman as the inspiration to create a song that he plays for the rest of the book (resulting in a powerful emotional epilogue). Young readers can’t hear Bao’s dragon song, but their imaginations will supply the music.

"'The Dragon’s Song' is somewhat light on discussing the history and politics of both the Vietnam War and the resulting refugee crisis. That’s entirely understandable in a story narrated by an 11-year-old and intended for readers roughly that age. But the book provides enough context for young readers to understand, while hopefully leading them to learn more about the era. “The Dragon’s Song” achieves its primary goal, to take a rather vague term, “boat people,” and turn it into a vivid tale of a drama that Binh Pham and thousands of others experienced on their way to the United States. Further, many parents can learn from this book, as well. “The Dragon’s Song” is a terrific middle-school read."

Powerful Music (Silver Screen Videos) via Amazon