Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War Book Poster Image
Powerful graphic-novel memoir offers hope, call to action.

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age 10+
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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Outlines the historical and political realities and dangerous rebel militias of 1990s Republic of Congo, shows refugee camps in Uganda. Concepts and vocabulary such as "colonization," "liberation," "genocide"; some Swahili words such as "bikwembe" (a type of fabric) and local items, such as cassava leaves. Several pages in the back explain how the practice of using child soldiers is a global problem, suggests what readers can do to help stop the practice, and offers some website resources for further research on child soldiers and other topics addressed in the book.

Positive Messages

Even if terrible things happen, don't dwell on them. Michel's dad says, "Never fear death. Death comes to everyone. What matters is what you do with the time you have. This is what defines you. The legacy that you leave, not just for your family but for the whole world." He also says, "A great person is not defined by their money or success ... but rather by their heart and what they do for others." Seeking revenge makes you no better than your enemies. Working together, people can make positive changes in the world. As his dad says, "If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Michel's parents are loving and protective. His father stays strong in terrible circumstances and works for positive change. And he gives Michel lots of guidance and inspires him to work for change. Pages at the back describe how Michel immigrated to Canada at age 16, succeeded in school as a student and athlete, and now as a young man in his early 20s continues to work for justice, sharing "his powerful and inspiring message of hope with people all over the world."

Violence

Young boys are kidnapped by rebel soldiers, beaten, killed, cut with knives, and forced to consume cocaine, and they use guns and endure amputations. Michael at 5 is blindfolded and forced to fatally shoot his friend and then continue to wear a shirt with his friend's blood splattered on it. When he runs away, he skins his shin and blood is shown. When he returns to school and a boy calls him a child killer, Michel jumps on the boy and stuffs grass in his mouth, then gets punished by his dad for fighting. Michel's dad is kidnapped and tortured and later poisoned to death, but these facts are mentioned, not shown. When soldiers come to his house after his father is kidnapped, a soldier holds a gun to Michel's head and says, "If you close your eyes I will shoot you." Other soldiers are shown holding down his mother and sister, and Michel jumps on the back of one of the soldiers and punches him. The soldier lifts his machete (shown) and slices it across Michel's cheek (not shown). Michel is shown at his father's deathbed.

Sex
Language

After Michel returns form his ordeal as a child soldier, a schoolmate taunts Michel's sister, saying, "Your brother is a child killer!"

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, is a graphic-novel memoir that recounts events that began in 1993 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when 5-year-old Michel was kidnapped by a rebel militia and escaped two weeks later. Kidnapped children are beaten, cut with knives, forced to consume cocaine, and even killed. When Michel is 10, his father is kidnapped and tortured (not shown), the family ends up in a refugee camp in Uganda, and his father is poisoned and dies in that country. Most of the family migrates to Canada when Michel is 16. The publisher recommends Child Soldier for age 10 to 14, but given the horror of these real-life events, including when Michel at 5 is blindfolded and forced to fatally shoot his friend, we recommend it for age 12 and up. The book also gives important political and historical context to these events, which will be easier for older readers to grasp. Ultimately, Michel's story is a hopeful one of family love, resilience, and hope. It's also a passionate call to stop the practice of using child soldiers, with several pages in the back devoted to explaining this as a global problem and the issue skillfully written about so kids can understand.

User Reviews

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Teen, 16 years old Written byTrisFar November 11, 2016

Sad but true

I loved reading about this little child's experience of being alone and afraid, and how he survived and is making the world a better place as an adult. Th... Continue reading

What's the story?

Michel is a happy 5-year-old in a loving family in the Republic of Congo in 1993 when he and his best friend, Kevin, are kidnapped with other boys by a rebel militia when they're playing soccer on the field after school. They're thrown into trucks and taken to the soldiers' camp in the hills, where Michel is forced to become a CHILD SOLDIER. The children are initiated into the rebel army by being cut with a knife and having a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine ground into the wound. Then Michel is blindfolded, a gun is put into his hand, and someone behind him grabs his fingers, puts one on the trigger, and forces it to shoot. A soldier takes off the blindfold and Michel sees he's killed Kevin (the panel shows only the flip-flops of the fallen boy). After Michel escapes and returns home, he continues to suffer as his father becomes an activist against corrupt politicians and ruthless rebels. His father is kidnapped and tortured (neither is shown) and sent to a refugee camp in Uganda. The family joins him there, and after his father's death, Michel, his mother, and one sister migrate to Canada when he's 16. Later another sister joins them, but his sister who remained in Congo is never seen again. 

Is it any good?

This heartrending, powerfully illustrated graphic novel memoir is a testament to courage, survival, family bonds, and hope amid unimaginably tough circumstances for a child to face. By keeping the focus on Michel and his father's love that pulls him through, readers will be able to relate to Michel as an ordinary kid caught up in extraordinary circumstances and grasp the complex geopolitical realities of this historical moment. They'll also gain an awareness that the horror of child soldiers remains an issue in many countries of the world today.

Illustrator Claudia Davila's varied panels of stylized cartoon-like figures often zoom in close to emphasize the emotions of the characters -- the evil ones as well as the kind and clueless. One panel near the end shows a diverse group of contemporary kids on a city bus in North America (where Michel's lived for 10 years now) with their thought balloons filled with trivial complaints, such as  " ... hate my new phone" and " ... pizza was ice cold by the time ... ." And Michel says, "When I first arrived, I thought people here didn't care about the troubles in other countries. But now I know that young people here just don't understand what is happening right now, to kids just like them." This book goes along way toward helping kids understand.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about child soldiers. Where in the world are children forced into military service today?

  • How is the graphic-novel formal helpful for conveying scenes of heartless brutality? What does the artist zero in on to convey emotions and danger?

  • Why do the the adult soldiers make the child soldiers consume cocaine?

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