Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and . . . actually, that’s it for this time. She hates using the words “child” and “violence” in the same sentence.
* * *
Glancing over the list of forthcoming EBYR titles, my eye catches on two novels for young readers: Becoming the Wolf and Son of a Gun.
Hmm . . . I think to myself, “Becoming the Wolf” feels a little dark, but “Son of a Gun” sounds like it might be fun . . . even folksy, maybe.
Wrong. And wrong.
“Becoming the Wolf” turns out to be the working title for the quirky romp through Fairy Tale Land that will later be published as Big Bad Sheep.
It doesn’t take me more than a few paragraphs (and a quick glance at the AK-47-toting youngster on the cover) to realize that, of the two novels, Son of a Gun is the dark one.
* * *
“Can you imagine it?”
This is how Anne de Graaf opens her author’s preface.
“Can you imagine it? Children walking around with weapons? Children who are forced to hurt other children, children who are forced to defend their country?”
I’ve never wanted to imagine it, I think, but I’m a little afraid that I may be about to start imagining it.
I meet the characters — sister Nopi and brother Lucky — who take turns telling their story: a story about children kidnapped from school and made to become child soldiers in Liberia’s civil war.
“Do you wonder who this boy is? This boy who is telling you this story? This boy is my brother. And me, I’m his sister. I’m two years older. He was born in 1988 and I was born in 1986. When he was still a baby the war started, near the end of 1989. The first wartime. That makes him eight years old at the beginning of this story, and I’m ten.”
Oh, how my heart aches! My oldest child is now seven. To imagine a little boy barely more advanced in years than my own beloved daughter knowing nothing but war his whole life — it tears me up inside. I can tell that this is going to be a hard book to read.
* * *
If I’m being completely honest, I must admit that the first time I start this book, I don’t get far before I lay it aside. The first few pages leave me feeling raw and shaky, and I know I will have to build up my courage before I plunge more deeply into it.
Finally, weeks later, I feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, and — as quickly as I can — I whip through it, feeling for all the world like someone sprinting through a hailstorm.
* * *
It’s not that Son of a Gun is horrifyingly graphic, or that it’s riddled with gratuitous scenes of violence and brutality — it isn’t really. Compared to a book like The Hunger Games (which I also read recently), de Graaf’s writing feels pretty restrained, especially considering her difficult subject matter.
It’s Lucky and Nopi that grip at my heart. I can hear their voices in my head, see their smiles. I can feel their pain, their fear, and their despair. I love them instantly and deeply, and it hurts me to read about their suffering.
Anne de Graaf understands what I’m feeling.
“Parts of this story will be a little hard to read,” she says. “These parts were hard to write, too! I still hear the actual voices of the young people who told me these things. Everything described in this story really did happen.”
I think that maybe her words make the story hurt even more. I don’t want to know that all this isn’t just the brainchild of some author’s overactive imagination — to know that real, precious children have really endured atrocities like these.
As much as it hurts, though, I guess I’d rather know than not know. And when it comes down to it, I guess I’d rather that my children know than not know.
Part of me, of course, wants desperately to shelter them the painful subject matter of this book. But another part of me looks around with concern at their childhood culture — somehow full already of ninja assassins, flesh-eating zombies, giant killer robots, and other violent things. (Don’t ask me where they find them all.) That part of me wants them to read Lucky and Nopi’s story and understand rightly what violence is, and what it does.
I want them to love Nopi and Lucky as I love them, to recoil at the thought of them being forced to hurt and kill other children — and to end the story, as I did, by whispering a solemn, angry promise to all children everywhere: “NEVER! NEVER AGAIN!”
* * *
Presenting a book like this to the reading public is, you might say, a tricky proposition. It just doesn’t seem to fit into any of our established molds.
For starters, whom should we even identify as the appropriate audience?
Our earliest marketing materials say it’s intended for kids aged eight to twelve. After all, the kids in the story are eight and ten, and the book is relatively short and easy to read.
That doesn’t go over too well with early reviewers, though. Most of them feel the book is too heavy, its themes too grown up for such young children. (I suppose I can relate, since I don’t plan to introduce it to my own children until they’re a little older.)
So — not eight to twelve. . . . Twelve and up, then?
Should we try to market it to specifically Christian audiences? Anne de Graaf is a Christy Award-winning novelist whose work is well known in evangelical circles, but this isn’t exactly what you’d call a religious book.
When it comes down to it, I suppose all any of us can do is what I’ve done here: tell you about this painful, powerful, ultimately even hopeful book and let you decide who should read it.