In this edition of news from our neighbors to the north: a nonfiction graphic novel about a former child soldier, a spotlight on aboriginal authors, a new middle-grade series from the descendant of literary royalty, and a hat trick of book design awards for one West Coast publisher.

Former Child Soldier Tells His Story

Michel Chikwanine was just five years old, living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when he was kidnapped during an after-school soccer match by Congolese rebels and forced into warfare as a child soldier. He eventually managed to run away and reunite with his family, but not before his captors blindfolded him and forced him to shoot his best friend.

This September, Chikwanine’s story, Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, will be told in graphic novel format by Toronto-based Kids Can Press, as part of the publisher’s nonfiction CitizenKid series. Chikwanine, who lived in a refugee camp in Uganda for five years before moving to Canada in 2004, has since told his story as a motivational speaker to schools and groups across Canada and the U.S.

The topic is especially timely since just last week, Omar Khadr, the former child soldier accused of war crimes and held in Guantánamo Bay, was set free after more than 10 years. Chikwanine, now 27, says that when he heard of Khadr’s release, it was “a huge sigh of relief to see that this topic is being taken seriously in Canada.”

Child Soldier, which is illustrated by Claudia Dávila, is intended for 10-14-year-olds, and includes an epilogue on how education, activism, and philanthropy can help put an end to this practice. For the writing, Chikwanine collaborated with Jessica Dee Humphreys, who co-wrote They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children (2010) with Canadian humanitarian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire. “To learn about something like this at a young age, and to make it part of your understanding of the world, could inspire so much change,” says Humphreys.

Although it’s a difficult subject to tackle for a young age group, Chikwanine felt it was important to tell his story. “It’s about understanding the perspective of a child going through this terrible experience, which many children are unfortunately forced to go through all across the world,” he says.

Chikwanine, who is now a student of African Studies at the University of Toronto, says his dream is to one day go back to Congo or Uganda to start a soccer academy for former child soldiers and refugees. “That’s a passion of mine, and that’s my big dream, but I’m still working on getting there,” he says. “I’m trying to make myself a better human being.”

Second Story Awards Two in Aboriginal Writing Contest

Second Story Press has been a champion of diverse children’s books for 25 years, and this week the company announced not one but two winners for its aboriginal writing contest, both of which will be released in fall 2016. The winners, selected out of 55 entries, are Melanie Florence – of Plains Cree and Scottish descent – for her picture book Stolen Words, and Susan Currie – of Cayuga descent – for her novel The Mask Who Sang.

Second Story has published books about aboriginal people before, and in fact, it has an entire nonfiction series featuring biographies of leaders in First Nations and Native Indian communities. But publisher Margie Wolfe says she believes it’s important to create a new body of literature that goes beyond traditional folklore, myths, and legends. She wants to publish books that deal with contemporary experience. “We want particularly for the writing to come from the community,” says Wolfe.

The contest jury consisted of Wolfe and two others: Jenny Kay Dupuis, aboriginal educator and researcher; and Cherie Dimaline, Métis author and writer-in-residence at the Toronto Public Library. “The selected works gave a voice to aboriginal issues and brought life to sensitive subjects like bicultural identity, historical trauma, social relationships, and intergenerational healing,” says Dupuis of the winning books.

Stolen Words, a picture book for older readers about a residential school survivor and his granddaughter, is written in “a lyrical, poetic voice,” according to Wolfe. When the girl asks him how to say “grandfather” in Cree, he’s embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t know his native language anymore, which leads the two to search for the language he lost. Dimaline describes this book as “an honor song from our youth to the Elders.”

The Mask Who Sang is a novel about a 12-year-old girl living with her single mother; one day the girl discovers a hidden Iroquois mask in her estranged grandmother’s house – a mask that shows her dreams and leads her to discover her and her mother’s Cayuga heritage. Dimaline says this manuscript “manages to entertain and charm while addressing such issues as racism and bullying in a positive and revealing way.”

Now that the contest submissions are all in, Wolfe says these two books are just the beginning. There were other manuscripts she would like to see published by Second Story — it’s just a matter of time. “We don’t see this competition as a way to do just one story, or two stories. We see this as part of a process,” she says. “It’s fantastic to have the expertise and new perspective [the authors] bring to the stories they’ve offered to share with us.”

Esta Spalding to Publish First Children’s Book

Canadian writer Esta Spalding has long been known for her novels, poetry, and screenwriting, as well as for her literary parents: mother Linda Spalding (The Purchase) and stepfather Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). But in spring 2016, Esta Spalding will publish her first middle-grade book, titled Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts.

Tundra Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada) will publish the book in Canada, and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which bought world rights excluding Canada, will publish it simultaneously in the U.S. The book is the first in a series, and will be illustrated by Sydney Smith, who recently saw success as the artist behind the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books).

Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts tells the story of a group of self-reliant, loosely related siblings who live alone on a South Pacific island. According to Little, Brown’s Susan Rich, who bought the book’s rights in a preempt, the Fitzgerald-Trout kids sleep in their car, bathe in the ocean, eat fish they catch and fruit they pick, and even drive around wherever they need to.

“Together, they demonstrate this tremendous ability,” says Rich. “It’s wonderful wish-fulfillment, empowering kid-fantasy stuff. The writing is so snappy and uproarious and brilliant, and Esta has built this whole fictional brilliant world.”

Smith, who will bring the siblings to life with his illustrations, says he was drawn to the project because it reminded him of his favorite books he read when he was younger. “This book doesn’t talk down to a young reader,” he says. “It has the right balance of reality and fantasy.”

For Rich, Spalding is the first new middle-grade series author she’s launched since Lemony Snicket’s hugely popular A Series of Unfortunate Events. The second, not-yet-titled book in the Fitzgerald-Trout series will be released in spring 2017.

Simply Read Wins Design Award Three Years Running

A title from Vancouver-based Simply Read Books has taken first prize at the Alcuin Society Book Design Awards in the children’s book category for the third year in a row. This year, the award went to Naomi MacDougall, designer for the early reader book Murilla Gorilla and the Hammock Problem (written by Jennifer Lloyd and illustrated by Jacqui Lee).

This year’s trio of judges chose titles in 31 categories out of 201 entries, nine provinces, and 79 publishers. Murilla Gorilla and the Hammock Problem is the third in a series for children ages five to eight, featuring a jungle detective who solves mysteries in the African Rainforest. The award judges cited the book’s “vintage feel” as a contributing factor to its appeal. “The overall look and feel is fun and playful, with an engaging color palette, skilled typography, and comfortable page proportions that all contribute to a great book ‘feel,’ ” they said in a statement.

According to Dimiter Savoff, publisher of Simply Read Books, the process was a “constant conversation” between the illustrator, the designer, and the publisher. “The book is adorable, well-written, and incredibly beautifully illustrated. So the whole package is outstanding. I think the designer, Naomi MacDougall, did an outstanding job.”

Another Simply Reads title, Lori Joy Smith’s picture book The Goodnight Book, designed by Sara Gillingham, received an honorable mention in the category, making it an exceptional three years for the publisher – last year, the company actually won all four prizes in the children’s category (two books tied for third place). Savoff says there was also a lot of interest in The Goodnight Book at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair from publishers in southern Europe. “We put a lot of effort into making these books beautiful,” says Savoff. “It’s close to our hearts.”

The fourth title in the Murilla Gorilla series will be released in November. This fall, the Alcuin Society Book Design Award winners will receive their awards at ceremonies in Toronto and Vancouver. All winning titles will be featured in a number of locations, including the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, and the Frankfurt and Leipzig Book Fairs.