Michel Chikwanine was only 5 years old when he was taken and forced to become a child soldier in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. After dealing with some of the toughest things a young person should never have to endure, he decided he had to do some good in the world and share his story. His first graphic novel, CHILD SOLDIER: WHEN BOYS AND GIRLS ARE USED IN WAR (Kids Can Press), is his story and when we caught up with the author, he told us exactly why he felt inspired to get his words out there.
MISS LITERATI: What made you want to write a book and tell your personal story?
MICHEL: It tells my story growing up in the Democratic Republic in the Congo and how I was abducted at the age of 5 and made into a child solider. I was manipulated and forced to kill my best friend as a way of being trained into the military. The other stories I talk about revolve around my family, specifically my father who is a huge part of my life. He was a human rights activist in Congo and he is the one who inspired me to become an activist. He was unfortunately killed because of his work and his death made my family into refugees. Thankfully the Canadian government gave us tickets and we were able to arrive in Canada as refugees in 2004.
My book also touches on a lot of different themes like courage, overcoming struggle and what it feels like to be a refugee in the world. Mostly, however, it brings light to the issue of child soldiers. I knew that I needed to raise awareness for this issue when I was watching the news and saw how children fighting in wars were being portrayed in the media. That, combined with the fact that many people in this area of the world don’t know that today there are 250,000 child soldiers. The young people here in North America are going to grow up and be in positions of power, making decisions in the government and they’re going to have jobs that will affect the world. They need to make their decisions from a very moral background, so I wanted to help open their eyes about this issue while they are young
MISS LITERATI: What made you want to tell this story in the graphic novel format?
MICHEL: The information is violent in a sense and I wanted to write this story not to shock people, but to inform them. It was important to choose a format that would interest and hold the attention of kids. Graphic novels are a very visual format that kids are used to. One of the most amazing things the illustrator does is to draw the graphic novel from the perspective of the child looking up. It’s as if those reading the book can see themselves in it, which is important, as I want this story to connect to the young people who read it.
MISS LITERATI: Was there anything that you weren’t sure if you should include in the book, since this is all about your life?
MICHEL: It’s very difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. My primary aim was to get readers to personally connect with the story, so that the issue of children being used in warfare becomes meaningful and important to them.
MISS LITERATI: What do you help readers will take away from this graphic novel?
MICHEL: I want readers to see themselves in positions of power, to inspire them to want to make decisions that will positively affect their peers one day. I want them to see themselves as people who can make an impact in society in their own countries and all over the world. I think young people might feel powerless, they see so many things going on in the world and think, ‘What can I do, I’m just a young kid?’ One of the things I talk about in the graphic novel is something my father always told me when I was a kid: ‘If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’ It inspired me and made me want to continue his legacy as an activist. And that’s what I hope to pass on to readers of the book. I want young people to see themselves as citizens who can give back and who can challenge authority to make decisions that are right for their community and the world.
MISS LITERATI: Do you have any advice for teens who might be going through a hard time and aren’t exactly sure how to come out of it and achieve their goals?
MICHEL: My father used to tell me to always remember that great men and women all throughout history have never been described by their money or their success, but rather by their heart and what they do for others. I think so many of us get caught up in the idea that we have to be better than everyone else, pursue money for success. Empathy is such an important aspect of our lives and so many people don’t see that. I want young people to see themselves as being able to do good for the world. Doing good means you’re a human being, and you care.