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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, written by Michel Chikwanine and Jessica Dee Humphreys , with illustrations by Claudia Davila. Kids Can Press, 2015. $18.95 ages 10 and up

"He burst out laughing and hit
me across the face with his gun.
I realized then that this was no
joke. I was thrown into the back
of a truck with several other boys
and driven into the hills. I was
so scared. Kevin was in another
truck. I couldn't talk to him. I
couldn't even see him. When the
truck stopped, we were ordered
to get out ... "

There is absolutely no way that we can imagine what life as a child soldier is like - unless we live it. Michel Chikwanine was only 5 in 1993 when he was kidnapped by rebel militia soldiers. He was, at the time, playing soccer with friends in the field near his school. It wasn't until they heard gunfire that the boys realized these soldiers were different from the government soldiers they often saw.

"We had never seen soldiers like these before.
They had red eyes and scruffy hair; they were
wearing shabby t-shirts over ragged jeans
and cheap rain boots."

The rebels gathered the boys, lined them up and initiated them into their army through a wrist cut. Into that wound they rubbed a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. What happens to Michel next is brutal and terrifying - and too true.

This tragic graphically rendered story is told with empathetic understanding and great skill. There is so much more to it than Michel's kidnapping and terrifying time with the rebels. We also learn about the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, what happened to his family following his escape, and finally of his life as a refugee before becoming a Canadian citizen. While the illustrations depict the emotional effect of the violence experienced, they are not explicit except through the facial expressions of the children. That makes it so immediate and compelling. To know that it is still happening is almost inconceivable after reading of Michel's harrowing journey to where he is today.

This fine book is a worthy addition to the CitizenKid series from Kids Can Press. It is an inspiring tale of courage and understanding, and Michel shares it in speaking engagements and in his work as an activist to change the world. He reminds his readers that he tells his story for a purpose:

"I have discovered that people do care!
I am part of a movement of young people
who want to help, who are passionate
and who will take action so that what
happened to me will not happen to the
children of the future."

He finishes with a perfect quote from his father, a human rights lawyer, who inspired him to work toward positive change.

“If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

Michel's story is followed by a number of pages in back matter that tell the audience more about Michel himself, about child soldiers, about what is being to done to help and how we can all help to make a difference.

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