WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL (Annick Press, 2013)
Written by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance
Unfortunately, the plight of child soldiers—the focus of WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance—has become a topic that we are all too familiar with, especially after the KONY 2012 campaign, which sought to bring attention to the issue. WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL is based upon McKay’s 2008 novel of the same title. The story features Jacob and his school friends and their experiences, after being kidnapped from school, of serving as child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Both the original novel and the graphic adaptation are based upon true events and extensive research.
As stated above, stories like these have become well-known, but McKay’s text has several features that make it a unique and high-quality version of these events. Jacob and some of his friends manage to escape their LRA captives and eventually return home, but McKay doesn’t end the story here. Instead, she follows her characters as they try to rebuild their lives. Although certainly victims of the LRA, many of the returned child soldiers are viewed as dangerous; in some ways they’re seen in the same light as the leaders of the LRA. By continuing the story McKay provides a more complete picture of the long lasting impact of being forced to serve as a child soldier.
The second feature of McKay’s work that sets it apart is the quality of the graphic novel adaptation. Much of this can be attributed to Lafrance’s visuals. Lafrance is particularly skillful in his use of color, especially in enhancing emotions, throughout the text. Varying perspectives are another visual strength of WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL.
Finally, McKay and Lafrance don’t attempt to soften the horrors experienced by this group of child soldiers, but neither do they seek to glorify the violence either. While the topic and the events make this book inappropriate for younger audiences, the sensitivity with which the violence is handled does not preclude younger readers from experiencing the text.
The one drawback of the text is that while it fosters an emotional connection between the characters and the readers, it does not provide suggestions for steps readers can take to help stop the practice of using child soldiers. However, while the text does not provide guidance for action, readers and educators can find, create, and contribute to these opportunities themselves.
History/Social Studies, Geography, Politics, Service Learning, Language Arts/English, Visual Literacy
Ideas for Classroom Use: Next Steps
As noted above, WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL does not provide any suggestions for how readers can help to end the use of child soldiers. However, the Internet is full of resources and recommendations for action. Educators and students can work together to harness the passion fueled by WAR BROTHERS and focus it towards ending the practice of child soldiers.
Teachers can organize this activity in numerous ways, including having small groups find or design a way to help the cause. They can then present their ideas to the class, and the class can choose between all of the proposed methods. Students can prepare for these presentations by using the Persuasion Map Student Interactive from ReadWriteThink.
For older students, this activity provides an opportunity to dive deeper into researching nonprofits and their practices. Unfortunately not all organizations make the best use of the funds raised on their behalf, nor utilize volunteers to their full extent. Savvy contributors and volunteers often research organizations before contributing time or money. These same approaches can be used to evaluate the media and to strengthen critical media literacy skills.
Translating into Another Format
Many people might be surprised to read about child soldiers in a graphic novel. However, the graphic novel format can be used to tell almost any story.
In this activity, students will translate a portion of WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL into another format. For example, students can write a short story based on part of the story. Students could also assume the identity of a character from WAR BROTHERS and write a letter from that perspective. Songs, timelines, or even Facebook pages—the possibilities for alternate formats are unlimited.
This activity will foster students’ ability to read and understand information in a variety of formats. It’s particularly targeted toward understanding visual information to the extent necessary to present it in a different format.
SON OF A GUN by Anne de Graaf, previously published in the Netherlands, would provide a beautiful companion text to WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL. It tells the story of a brother and sister who were captured and forced into service in the Liberian Civil War. This 2013 Batchelder Honor Winner (awarded to books previously published outside of the United States in another language and later translated into English and published by an American publisher) is based upon interviews with former child soldiers. On deGraaf’s blog, she posts pictures from her research in Liberia.
Additional Resources and Activities: WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL Workblog
THE WAR BROTHERS: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL Workblog is a unique resource for this text as it provides insight into some elements of the book’s creation. Lafrance supplies some before and after sketches as he plays with different artistic techniques in order to find the perfect way to illustrate the story. There is also a tab for latest news about the LRA and additional web resources. This may be a good starting point for finding service projects and more information.
Amnesty International Child Soldiers
Amnesty International’s fight for human rights extends to child soldiers. While there are many sources regarding child soldiers on the Amnesty International websites, the above link is for a unit on child soldiers including lesson plans and suggested activities.
Emmanuel Jal TED Talk: The Music of a War Child
Prior to becoming a hip-hop star, Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in the Sudanese rebel army. The stories from this time in his life, which began when he was seven years old, fill his songs. Jal has dedicated his life to fighting poverty and child warfare. The TED talk includes several of Jal’s songs, which likely will appeal to middle and high school viewers.
Timeline Student Interactive
ReadWriteThink.org is a collaboration between the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE); the site provides a plethora of resources for a wide span of grades and subjects. This popular interactive guides students through the process of organizing information in timeline form and results in a polished finished product. It’s particularly useful for the “Translating into Another Format” activity outlined above.
Aimee Rogers is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying children’s and adolescent literature. Prior to her return to school, Aimee taught high school students with special needs, in a wide variety of settings, for ten years. She misses working with adolescents but is developing a passion for working with undergraduate pre-service teachers. She has a growing interest in graphic novels for children and young adults and is making them the focus of her dissertation.
© 2013 Aimee Rogers. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.