Walking into a Toronto bookstore Michel Chikwanine glanced up the staircase to see someone inspecting his newly published book, “It was mind-blowing to me that some had actually taken the time to read it,” he recalls of the encounter in 2016.

A world away from the comforts of the Canadian city where he has lived for more than a decade, Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War is Chikwanine’s remarkable personal story of life as a child soldier in Democratic Republic of Congo’s bloody civil war and journey to North America as a teenager.

But unlike many accounts written by former child soldiers, Chikwanine’s text is written specifically for children. 

The book, co-authored with Jessica Dee Humphreys, is aimed at nine to 14-year-olds and is presented in comic-like format with speech bubbles and vivid illustrations.

A child's perspective

It is a unique approach for a book which depicts Chikwanine’s abduction by armed rebels in 1993 aged five and describes harrowing experiences, including being forced to shoot an AK-47 blindfolded which killed his friend, a dangerous escape and the death of his father.

“Feedback from parents and children is that it impacts them positively, despite how heavy it is,” Chikwanine says.

“The illustrations make it so incredibly accessible that the story is not harsh. It is real, but it isn’t harsh and they feel invested in it and at the end they want to do something about it.”

Engaging children in issues of child soldiers and human rights topics can be a difficult process.

These issues are rarely taught to younger audiences and children’s only knowledge often comes from formal news sources, something Chikwanine was keen to redress.

“When the book was published, there was a huge fervour around Islamic State recruiting children and, here in Canada, the story of Omar Khadr. So the topic [of child soldiers] was in the news constantly,” he explains.

“A lot of our children have access to the internet, but don’t have control of where their information is coming from. So I felt it was important that that the graphic novel was used as a tool for a younger audience. They get a perspective different to the headlines in the news.

Alongside awareness raising, animations allow children to interpret the complexity and graphic nature of such events in a simpler format. 

“The amazing part is that the illustrations are almost from a child’s perspective and as if the reader is immersed in the story and for a lot of younger children they feel they are there,” he adds.

Growing interest

The use of illustrated literature to make difficult topics accessible to children is increasingly popular. A range of children’s books exploring issues from migration to the Syrian civil war are being published; My Beautiful Birds and the picture book memoir, Dear World, detailing eight-year-old of Bana Alabed’s journey from Syria to Turkey among them.

Bringing humanitarian issues to the page for young audiences is the focus of Why Comics?. An educational offshoot of London NGO PositiveNegatives, the charity creates illustrated accounts and animations for schools on a range of humanitarian themes and gives teachers interactive resources so students can better understand sensitive topics.

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“It is an engaging visual medium and as people are increasingly getting news from social media the comic format is very familiar for young people with images and a short amount of text,” education programme manager Emma Saville says.

“The comic draws the student in and there is an empathy and understanding … It makes such issues accessible regardless of age or literacy level.”

The organisation’s resources have been used by more than 500 schools in 26 countries and its real-life stories range from tales of human trafficking to child labour. The above image is from a video produced for the Open Society Foundations titled Born Julia and Julius about growing up intersex in Uganda. 

Red Hand Day

Working with schools to educate children is also the focus of our Red Hand Day Campaign.

Otherwise known as the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers on 12 February, our schools project calls upon students to design red hand posters showing support for children in armed conflict and our campaign to end the use of child soldiers.

One contributing school from California told us they took part after studying the 1980s war in El Salvador where children were recruited and students wanted to take action, while a group of fourth and fifth graders in Seattle did so after reading Michael Chikwanine’s animated memoir.

Such motivations are exactly what Chikwanine wants his young readers to feel: “Like any author writing about an issue, I want people to walk away from it feeling empowered,” he says.

Now aged 29, Chikwanine arrived in Canada aged 16 with his mother and sister from a Ugandan refugee camp where they had fled to during the conflict.

Today he travels around North America and Europe sharing his remarkable story, is finishing a degree at the University of Toronto and works with various NGOs, including the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, to bring about political change to end the use of children in conflict and continues to inspire audiences both young and old.

As the final words of his book state: “Working together, we will make positive changes. As my father used to tell me, ‘If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito’.” 

© Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War - illustrated by Claudia Davila
© Born Julia and Julius - commissioned by Open Society Foundations / illustrated by Gabi Froden & produced by PositiveNegatives