Keely Hutton is the author of Secret Soldiers, a new novel for older kids. She also has written the young adult novel Soldier Boy. She is an educational journalist and former teacher, and she lives in Fairport, New York.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Secret Soldiers, and for your character Thomas?
A: The idea for my upcoming middle grade novel, Secret Soldiers, started with some confusion while I was binge-watching the BBC show Peaky Blinders three years ago. The main character, Tommy Shelby, suffers from PTSD due to his time as a soldier in World War I.
My editor and I had agreed that my next book should be in the same vein as my debut novel Soldier Boy, so I’d been researching wars and child soldiers. I hadn’t found anything that really grabbed my attention until I watched Tommy Shelby’s flashbacks, which showed him fighting in tunnels.
A quick Google search revealed that thousands of sappers and miners tunneled beneath the battlefields of the Great War to undermine the enemy’s position and break the brutal stalemate of trench warfare. Fascinated, I researched whether any child soldiers fought in World War I and was shocked to discover that over a quarter of a million underage British boys lied about their ages to join the war.
When I learned that many of those young soldiers were used as beasts of burden on and under the battlefields, I knew I had found my next story and began researching and writing Secret Soldiers. The character Thomas was created to represent the hundreds of thousands of underage boys who lied about their ages to join the fight. His arc also serves to explore the theme of family and the bonds of brotherhood forged on, and under, the battlefield.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to create the World War I-era setting?
A: I spent months pouring over books, articles, websites, documentaries, diary entries, and interviews about World War I and the tunnellers before I started writing. During the two and a half years I spent writing and revising Secret Soldiers, I revisited those initial sources and broadened my research to find interesting, accurate details about the places and people of the Great War to build a layered setting and create multifaceted characters.
Q: Your previous book also dealt with a young person involved in war--how did the experience of writing this book compare with writing Soldier Boy?
A: My experience writing Secret Soldiers differed from writing Soldier Boy in two significant ways.
The first difference was research. Soldier Boy is based on the life of a real person, who is still alive and agreed to be involved in every step of the writing process. I was fortunate to have the subject of the story, Ricky Richard Anywar, as a first-hand source for my research. Anytime I had a question or needed clarification, I messaged Ricky and he would correct or verify the information.
While researching for Secret Soldiers, I had to rely on books, articles, documentaries, and interviews with historians to verify information as there are no surviving World War I veterans to interview.
The second difference I experienced while working on Secret Soldiers was although child soldiers are central to both stories, the reasons why the children became soldiers during World War I and the Uganda War were very different.
In Soldier Boy, the child soldiers of the LRA are abducted and forced, under threat of torture and death, to fight for Joseph Kony’s LRA. In Secret Soldiers, the child soldiers willingly leave their families and lie about their ages to volunteer to serve in the army.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Secret Soldiers?
A: There are so many untold stories about the soldiers who served and the civilians who survived the First World War. It was such a pivotal time in history, but in many schools, World War I makes up a very small portion of their curriculum. I hope Secret Soldiers sparks an interest in readers to learn more about the conflict and encourages teachers to delve deeper into the subject in their classrooms.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on the plotting phase of a new story that takes place in London during World War II. Oddly enough, the origin of this story idea was also sparked by the show Peaky Blinders. (makes mental note to send Peaky Blinders a thank you card. 😊)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: If you are interested in learning more about the courageous tunnellers of World War I, I recommend these fascinating books, which were integral resources in my research for Secret Soldiers.
Jones, Simon. Underground Warfare 1914–1918. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2010.
Barton, Peter, Peter Doyle, and Johan Vandewalle. Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers’ War 1914–1918. Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2014.
Passingham, Ian. Pillars of Fire: The Battle of Messines Ridge, June 1917. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Spellmount, 2012.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Keely Hutton.