Author: Sharon E. McKay
Illustrator: Daniel Lafrance
First published by Annick Press in February 2013
Review by Miriam Atkinson
Sharon E. McKay provides a stark insight into the lives of child soldiers in Uganda in the graphic novel War Brothers, which is strikingly illustrated by Daniel Lafrance. A graphic adaptation of McKay’s original novel by the same name, the story follows fourteen year old Jacob and his three friends as they are kidnapped from school by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to serve the rebels in their fight against the government. While the majority of the characters are fictional, many of the events that take place in War Brothers: The Graphic Novel are based on McKay’s interviews with real child soldiers in northern Uganda.
As a reader I had to mentally prepare myself before I took the plunge into War Brothers: The Graphic Novel and the text wastes no time in presenting the horrors of war. The opening scene depicts the rebels ordering Jacob to attack and kill innocent school children and their teachers. The tension I felt when reading increased along with Jacob’s as I wondered what terrors might lie on the next page.
But War Brothers: The Graphic Novel does far more than highlight the violence and cruelty faced by these child soldiers. It convincingly portrays the psychological anguish and confusion the teenagers experience at being torn away from their families, all the while wondering if anyone is coming to save them, followed by their inner turmoil of participating in violent acts. The novel then asks both the characters and the reader whether they think the child soldiers are ultimately good people or bad people.
I have not read McKay’s original novel but I feel sure that Lafrance’s illustrations only add to the reader’s submersion into the story. The images brilliantly switch from close-ups of the characters emotions, to detailed full page illustrations that show the reader the scale of the environment, and even to chilling silhouettes during the more brutal moments of the text. In a clever narrative prompt the border around the images changes from white to black depending on whether Jacob is free or in danger.
It feels wrong to use the word ‘enjoyable’ to describe a book that deals with such a serious real-world topic. However it is a book I would recommend everyone should read at least once. In the prologue and concluding scenes McKay’s voice replaces Jacob’s and it becomes obvious why she and Lafrance created both the original War Brothers novel and War Brothers: The Graphic Novel – to inform as many people as possible about the hardships faced by the child soldiers in the hope that one day the world will change for the better.
War Brothers: The Graphic Novel is a tough read and it deliberately makes the reader feel uncomfortable. Anyone settling down to a light afternoon of pleasant reading may perhaps want to save this book for another time but as Jacob says in the introduction “there is no shame in closing this book now”.
*This review was first published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in August 2015*
Way back in August 2015 I signed up and became one of many young people writing reviews for the online magazine Cuckoo Review run by the company New Writing North, based in the north-east of England. I thought I would play it safe and start with a couple of book reviews until I got the hang of how everything worked. Then I was asked to review War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. It was not a book a was familiar with and I was already nervous since I had only read a couple of graphic novels – what if all I could think of to say was how nice the pictures looked? When the book arrived and I realised what the graphic novel was actually about I definitely felt the pressure to do my best.
Above is the first official review I ever wrote (minus my original spelling mistakes).