Child Soldier

December 1, 2015

Child Soldier. Michel Chikwanine & Jessica Dee Humphreys. Claudia Davila, ill. 2015. 48 pages. Kids Can Press. [Source: ARC provided courtesy of NetGalley.]

Told in first person, this story is the author’s true account of his experiences in a rebel militia as a child. I found it important that the first statement in the book is that while it is true, it’s not as likely to just randomly happen to children. Given the content of the book, and the random nature of his abduction, this step is necessary to ensure children don’t take away a sense of fear about whether this will happen to them.

The story itself is told in first person, and follows young Michel as he lives with his family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1993, when unrest was starting to boil over. One day, he was kidnapped and forced into being a child soldier, where he experienced violence, drug abuse, and a host of other horrific experiences. However, it also tells of his escape and subsequent journeys that eventually led him to Canada. It’s not quite a “happy” ending, but it does inspire hope.

In many ways, this is a picture book, but it offers depth and historical perspective not typically seen in this genre. Michel gives historical context in a way that is easy to understand, but doesn’t go so far as to oversimplify or trivialize what was happening. I especially liked how he described his neighborhood, family, school environment, and other aspects of his life; by doing so, he makes himself more relatable and it’s easier to empathize with him as he tells his story. The illustrations really prop up the story, conveying the emotion of Michel’s experiences. They’re done with detail that makes the overall tone clear without having to use graphic images or gore.

What stands out in this book is the educational resources at the end. These are a tremendous asset for anyone who wants to use this book to really delve into what happened (and still is) in The Congo. In many ways, this section is a call to action, outlining how people can prevent child soldiering, and providing an honest, yet appropriate, frequently asked questions section. Then, there are additional resources to which readers can turn to learn more. This book doesn’t answer all the questions, but makes sure to give people direction if they want to seek out their own.

Michel’s is an important story to tell, but it is not easy to hear. The descriptions are graphic and difficult to read, even as an adult. However, Michel’s narration of the book is conversational and easy to understand, but the content is more appropriate for older students, probably 10 and older. This book, however, is a great first step to open the conversation with children. I definitely recommend it.

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