When he was five years old, Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped from his school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and forced to fight as a child soldier. For months he suffered abuse and terror, but eventually escaped. At sixteen, he emigrated to Canada with his mother and older sister, but lost another sister and his beloved father, a human rights activist, to the ongoing strife in his homeland.
As he struggled to make peace with his past and adjust to life in a new country, telling his story became a form of therapy for Michel. Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War is a retelling of Michel’s ordeal as a graphic novel, co-written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila. The book is in the Kids Can Press series Citizen Kid, which aims to educate and inform children to become knowledgeable world citizens.
How should a graphic novel draw the line, so to speak, between representing violence and exploiting its victims? And how should a book with an expressly educational purpose draw the line between entertainment and didacticism? Child Soldier balances between showing and telling in relating Michel’s story, and its painterly, colorful style does so with honesty, compassion, and restraint. While the book doesn’t shy away from telling the facts about children forced into violence, its showing of the details is far less explicit, thus introducing young readers to the subject in a way that they can handle. For example, panels addressing one of the initial traumas of Michel’s captivity—when he is drugged, blindfolded, and forced to kill another boy as an initiation practice in the rebel militia—show only a symbolic representation of Michel’s mental state and a very partial depiction of the bloody aftermath of his terrible deed. Later, in drawings of a Ugandan refugee camp, Dávila represents Michel’s deprivation and loneliness with abstract squares representing rows and rows of tents fading into the distance.
Michel’s culture shock after he moved to Canada was compounded by what he first saw as other teens’ shallowness and ignorance. But soon he realized that by telling his story, he could inspire young people to make a difference. The last section of Child Soldier is written like a magazine article, with a clear and straightforward explanation of how rebel militias and criminal gangs in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Colombia recruit children to fight and serve other roles. (That these children are often the victims of sexual violence is mentioned briefly and factually.) The authors describe the efforts of the United Nations, national governments, international organizations, and individuals to demobilize and rehabilitate child soldiers. Readers who want to help are given appropriate suggestions, such as sharing copies of Child Soldier to educate friends and classmates; writing or emailing politicians; and raising money for charities that work on the ground in war-torn countries. This final explanatory section makes the book an excellent choice for middle-school social studies programs.
Child Soldier is marketed as a middle-grade title, but younger children could also understand Michel’s story, perhaps while reading with teachers, parents, or older siblings. As a parent, I was moved to tears by Michel’s story. Older children and teens will be moved, one hopes, to action and activism to build a world where there will never be another child soldier.
Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War
by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine
Art by Claudia Dávila
Kids Can Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14