At prison book club, a former child soldier finds an audience that can relate

Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 12:59 AM

The book club was all aflutter.

A celebrity author, after all, can get even the most serious bookworm a little exercised.

"I really loved your book, man!" said one of the readers - mouth wide open in a smile as he nearly tackled the slight Emmanuel Jal in a bear hug when he saw him.

The rest of the book clubbers filed in, one by one, and they each greeted Jal with a high five, some more hugs. A few asked for autographs.

Then they settled into their discussion circle, a ring of bright, orange inmate jumpsuits.

Jal's book, " War Child ," is the story of his brutal, young life in Sudan. He was one of the lost boys, wandering the desert with other forlorn children, and he became one of the war's infamous child soldiers, carrying a Kalishnikov that was taller than his starved, scarred, 9-year-old body. He killed his enemies - bam! bam! bam! - and didn't feel any better, only sadder.

In his book, Jal describes the merciless boot camp, a hunger so intense that he whispered to his dying friend that he would eat the boy's flesh in the morning and the mental anguish of watching his home torched, his village burned and his auntie raped before his eyes.

He ate snails and crows, ran from hippos, snakes and crocodiles. His father lied to him, telling him he was sending him to a school, but instead, it was to the barbarous training camp that turned boys into boy soldiers, if it didn't kill them first.

The book is riveting, shocking and horrifying.

And for the 40 or so young men surrounding me, oddly easy to relate to.

These are kids locked up in D.C.'s Correctional Treatment Facility, 16- and 17-year-olds who were charged as adults for serious crimes that probably involved a weapon. There was a guy with the word "Hope" tattooed on his neck who looked dead ahead with flat eyes and refused to participate in the book club's introductory wordplay. And there was the young inmate who wrote a special note to Jal and then, nervously, read it aloud to everyone. "It's good how you turned your life into something positive and how you is giving back to the community," he read.

At the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop , the prisoners learn the liberation of the printed word. They escape their cells to Hogwart's school for wizards or to a farm in San Diego or a battlefield in Vietnam in the pages of donated books. And in the case of Jal's book, they visited Africa.

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