How Soldier Boy by Keely Hutton Came to Be by Kate Olson
An incredibly powerful YA book with an amazing creation story – read on to learn about how Soldier Boy by Keely Hutton came to be…..
Several months ago, I was sent a box of books from a publisher, mostly advance reader copies. When I get these books, I always put them on my ARC shelf in order of publication date without looking very closely at them, and then attempt to get to them before the release date. Using this method, I grabbed one of the titles with a June 13, 2017 date off the shelf about a week before its release, and started reading. I was instantly captivated and heartbroken by the story, and after I managed to finish the book and write my review, I immediately reached out to the author asking if I could interview her.
That book is Soldier Boy, and the author is Keely Hutton. When I reached out to her on Twitter, Keely immediately agreed to the interview and even managed to coordinate with Ricky Richard Anywar in Uganda to complete the questions within just a few days. I am so honored to get to share this book and their words with you here.
OFFICIAL BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Soldier Boy begins with the story of Ricky Richard Anywar, abducted at age fourteen in 1989 to fight with Joseph Kony’s rebel army in Uganda’s decades-long civil war. Ricky is trained, armed, and forced to fight government soldiers alongside his brutal kidnappers, but never stops dreaming of escape.
The story continues twenty years later, with a fictionalized character named Samuel, representative of the thousands of child soldiers Ricky eventually helped rehabilitate as founder of the internationally acclaimed charity Friends of Orphans.
Working closely with Ricky himself, debut author Keely Hutton has written an eye-opening book about a boy’s unbreakable spirit and indomitable courage in the face of unimaginable horror.
My thoughts on the book are included in this post after the interview with Keely and Ricky.
INTERVIEW WITH KEELY AND RICKY:
1) How did you come to meet Ricky Richard Anywar?
KEELY: In 2012, my cousin emailed me about Ricky, who he’d met while working with non-profit organizations in Africa. Ricky was looking for a writer to tell the story of his time as child soldier. Five minutes into our first Skype conversation, I knew I wanted to help Ricky give a voice to the thousands of children whose voices were stolen by Kony and the LRA. Ricky and I have been working together on SOLDIER BOY ever since.
2) Describe the process of working with Ricky on his story – did you get to go to Uganda? Did he give you all of the information verbally or did he write a lot for you?
KEELY: After our first Skype chat, we started Skyping and emailing regularly. In June 2012, Ricky traveled to the States for an award ceremony. After the ceremony, he travelled to Upstate New York, where he stayed with my family for several days. We spent hours each day discussing ideas for the book, Ricky’s time as a child soldier in the LRA, and how he came to found Friends of Orphans. We have communicated on a weekly basis for the last five-and-a-half years through emails, Facebook messenger, and Skype. Ricky clarifies details and answers specific questions through email and Facebook messenger, but the majority of our communications regarding his life before, during, and after the LRA were conveyed verbally over Skype. I have not yet visited Uganda, but hope to someday.
3) Describe a little bit about the pitch and revision process for this book – was Ricky involved after the initial manuscript was submitted?
KEELY: After I’d written and revised…and revised…and revised the manuscript, which at the time was titled FINDING OBENO, and Ricky had read and approved it, I waded into the query trenches in search of a literary agent. I kept Ricky informed of every rejection and request. Two years, two hundred queries, and four revise-and-resubmit requests later, I found my amazing agent, Soumeya Roberts. Soumeya recommended cutting 50-100 pages of the manuscript. I cut 80, and we went on sub. Ten days later, Wes Adams at Farrar, Straus, Giroux made a pre-emptive offer on the book. He was the perfect editor for Ricky’s story and his remarkable team at FSG have championed the book every step of the way. They exceeded Ricky’s and my expectations for SOLDIER BOY. We couldn’t be happier with the book and are so excited to share it with readers.
4) Who is the intended audience for this book? How do you envision it being used/read in schools?
KEELY: The intended audience for SOLDIER BOY is readers ages 13 – 18+. As an 8th grade English teacher, I knew if my students were mature enough to handle the Civil War and Holocaust units taught at the 7th and 8th grade levels, they could handle reading about the Ugandan civil war and the LRA. In 2013, I created a compare-and-contrast curriculum to supplement my school’s existing Civil War unit. Ricky’s story proved an effective vehicle to show the similarities and differences between the U.S. Civil War and modern civil wars.
Students worked in literature circles and read novels set in the U.S. Civil War, such as BRADY by Jean Fritz, SHADES OF GREY by Carolyn Reeder, SLAVE DANCER by Paula Fox, HARRIET TUBMAN: CONDUCTOR ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Ann Petry, and ACROSS FIVE APRILS by Irene Hunt. The whole class also read about Ricky’s experience as a child soldier and researched articles and documentaries about the LRA and the Ugandan civil war. They also had the opportunity to Skype with Ricky and ask him questions about his life and organization.
Using a contemporary novel in conjunction with classic works to analyze the issue of civil conflict made the topic more relatable for my students. They were surprised to learn there were civil wars other than the one fought in the U.S. and were shocked to discover civil wars and slavery are ongoing problems still faced by children their age today.
The themes, story structure, and literary devices used in SOLDIER BOY may be discussed in 8th – 12th grade English classrooms, and the issues the novel explores may supplement high school Global and U.S. history curriculums, as well as certain college curriculums.
I am excited about the opportunities available for SOLDIER BOY to find a place in school curriculums and look forward to hearing about teachers’ and librarians’ creative ideas for using the text and the important discussions I hope will follow. In addition, Macmillan will be releasing a classroom guide for the book in the near future!
Questions for Ricky:
1) How did you choose Keely to write your story?
RICKY: After struggling for over eight years to find someone to tell my story in a beautiful and smart way, I found Keely. I couldn’t believe what she accomplished with SOLDIER BOY. It was more than I dreamed. I am so proud of the book. She has given words to my story and a voice to so many here in Uganda. I am excited that my dream to inspire people and provide healing through my story is becoming a reality.
2) Share a bit about how you decided to create Friends of Orphans
RICKY: My life experiences as a child soldier, abductee, and orphan motivated me to help children who experienced similar trauma. I started Friends of Orphans in 1999, at the peak of the war when international organizations could not dare to reach Pader. I knew it was dangerous to go back. I was safe in Kampala. I had a good job with the government. I knew I could be killed if I returned, but hearing news of the LRA’s continued attacks on villages and abductions of children in northern Uganda was also killing me. I had to do something to help, so I quit my job and returned to Pader to start Friends of Orphans. It was very dangerous. My vehicle was ambushed and I was shot, but I had to keep returning to help. Friends of Orphans was the only ray of hope for children in northern Uganda.
Since 1999, we have managed to help over 25,000 war-affected children in northern Uganda at our rehabilitation and vocational training center. Friends of Orphans is helping to rebuild lost hope and confidence in children whose early lives were stolen away.
How did you decide to write this book in the format you did, with Ricky being himself, and then using Samuel as a compilation of many of the orphans?
KEELY AND RICKY: When Ricky approached me about writing his story, he explained that he didn’t want the story to be a series of shocking, graphically violent scenes. He wanted the message of his story to be one of hope and inspiration. I looked at my notes from our conversations and knew I had to find a way to give readers time to breathe. During his two-and-a-half years as a child soldier, there were no moments that weren’t traumatizing and terrifying. I had to build in quieter moments. With that goal in mind, I pitched the idea of two alternating storylines, Ricky’s and Samuel’s. Ricky’s chapters would be accurate representations of his time in the LRA. The chapters that follow Samuel, a composite character, who represents the thousands of children Ricky has helped since founding Friends of Orphans, would be set twenty years later and serve as a thread of light woven between the darkness of the Ricky chapters.
MY THOUGHTS ON THE BOOK:
Add this to high school required reading lists IMMEDIATELY. Eye opening and heartbreaking, Soldier Boy is not a book we want to exist, given that it’s a semi-factual account of horrifying events (Ricky’s account is true, while the other narrator Samuel is a compilation of the thousands of boy soldiers Ricky has helped). However, given that these child soldiers are real and suffering, and Ricky Richard Anywar is a real person doing real work to help rehabilitate these child soldiers, this book needs to be read. It’s not an easy read, given the graphic depictions of killing, rape and mutilation, but it is a fast read in the sense that you want to keep turning the pages. It’s written at a perfect level for upper middle school and high school, as well as for adult readers like me who are new to reading about this ongoing tragedy. While the descriptions may be graphic, the events happened and need to be understood by more people worldwide. If we expose US students to book after book about the horrors of the Holocaust, it is our duty to share this story as well.
Please read this. You will squirm and cry and want to believe this is fiction. You may need to spread it out over several days because it’s so heavy, but please read it.
You can find more information on Ricky, Friends of Orphans, and the background of the war here: http://frouganda.org/index.html
Note: There is a story in the book “The Moth Presents: Stories From the Unknown” called “Unusual Normality” by Ishmael Beah that describes his experience as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone and struggling to fit in with other teens in his adopted home of NYC. This was a fascinating story, and would be a great one to share with students when reading this book – you can listen to it here:https://themoth.org/stories/unusual-n…
Kate Olson is a PK-12 librarian in a small rural school district in Wisconsin, as well as a reviewer for School Library Journal. She lives on the top of a giant hill in the middle of nowhere with her husband, 3 feisty children and a border collie named Max. She can be found on her blog The Loud Library Lady and on Instagram as @theloudlibrarylady and Twitter as @theloud_library.