Never Fall Down

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Never Fall Down Book Poster Image
Harrowing true story of boy in Cambodia's Killing Fields.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 3 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Never Fall Down brings the horrors of Cambodia's Killing Fields before a new generation in matter-of-fact, conversational terms. The novel shows human beings at both their best and worst. In addition to giving young readers an unforgettable history lesson, the author offers plenty of food for thought about difficult ethical problems.

Positive Messages

Never Fall Down shows that it's possible to not only survive horrendous experiences but also to go on to be a good person -- often thanks to the unexpected goodness of other people, often strangers. It also emphasizes that there's always more work to be done to help people.

Positive Role Models & Representations

While there are plenty of unambiguously evil people in this true story, there are many truly heroic ones, too -- for example, Arn's aunt, who does her best to keep the family safe, and his first music teacher. But one of the most compelling and disturbing things about Never Fall Down is the extent to which good and evil coexist in the same person -- how the same guard who saves Arn many times ruthlessly slaughters helpless villagers, and how Arn himself learns to shut out the horrors around him and participates in the killing, only to wonder later whether he's become too bad to be saved, while often saving his less resourceful friends.


Never Fall Down documents a young boy's personal experience of, and participation in, one of the worst genocides in history. Violence abounds, and the description of it becomes as casually routine as the day-to-day reality it was. Arn personally witnesses shootings, stabbings, ax blows to the head, and innumerable dead bodies. He also witnesses a starving 5-year-old gnawing on a dead body, until the child is taken off and killed. Arn is sexually molested by an older Khmer Rouge girl (no detail is given), but, as with other abuse, he distances himself from the experience. He notes that girls and women are routinely raped (but no rapes are described), and assumes this will happen to his sisters.


All sexual content is violent in nature; see Violence section.


"S--t" is used frequently, specifically to refer to starvation-induced diarrhea in the camps.


During one surreal moment, the starving refugee boys get a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that while Never Fall Down is a novel, it documents a young boy's personal experience of -- and participation in -- one of the worst genocides in history. Patricia McCormick's fictional "autobiography" of Cambodian human rights activist Arn Chorn-Pond, who was 11 when the Khmer Rouge took over his country -- and proceeded to massacre about a fourth of its population between 1975 and 1979 -- is a powerful tale of the triumph of the human spirit. Separated from his family, Arn personally witnesses shootings, stabbings, ax blows to the head, and innumerable dead bodies. He also sees a starving 5-year-old gnawing on a dead body, until the child is taken off and killed. Arn is sexually abused (no detail is given), and girls are commonly raped (not shown). There's frequent use of "s--t," in its literal sense, to describe starvation-induced diarrhea in the work and refugee camps. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byJIDDINS February 22, 2017

Complex & Fast-moving

McCormick does an excellent job at conveying Arn's take on this horrific time in Cambodia's history. She does not, however, provide much background on... Continue reading
Adult Written byHildegard April 13, 2015

Good but very violent

I read this book for the first time when I was 15. There were times when I had to step away from the page and take a break because the violence was so intense.... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byelena______ April 20, 2016


I read this book when I was 12 because it was assigned for class reading. I didn't really understand the book then but now at 14 years old I have read it m... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old June 1, 2014

My copy of this book is covered in my tears I shed every time I read it

This book is downright amazing and hands-down the best book in decades. It is so emotional that I cried while reading it. And I have never cried while reading a... Continue reading

What's the story?

Arn is a carefree 11-year-old kid, hustling money from the tourists with his younger brother and having good times in the city, when the Khmer Rouge take over his native Cambodia. Soon separated from his family, Arn learns to turn off the horrors around him and seize whatever opportunity he gets to survive -- the phrase \"never fall down\" comes from his quick discovery that anyone who does meets a quick death. Early on, Arn finds a way to survive by playing propaganda songs for the soldiers and workers -- music, he later learns, that's being used to drown out the sounds of mass killing. NEVER FALL DOWN is based on the real experiences of human rights activist Arn Chorn Pond, who now works to restore traditional music in Cambodia.

Is it any good?

Never Fall Down is a powerful, compelling story whose subject matter is both horrific and inspiring, since the narrator survived and went on to have a good life and do good things. Still, it may be too intense for some readers, as it takes place in a world in which deadly violence is an almost casual occurrence.

Author Patricia McCormick elected to tell the story in the broken English of the child narrator, Arn, which is at once effective and somewhat distracting.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Arn's aunt's advice: "Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower." In a world in which powerful people can kill you for any reason, is this good advice? Does it damage the person who takes it, even when they survive?

  • What do you know about life in Cambodia today and how the country has recovered from this chapter of its history?

  • Why do you think some people in Never Fall Down did some of the best and some of the worst things -- like the man who saved Arn's life several times but didn't hesitate to murder a baby?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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