Much of what Keely (Harrington) Hutton ’94 knows about storytelling she learned on the Heights – and in particular from her teachers in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. An English major with a minor in secondary education and a concentration in theatre arts, Hutton spent a lot of time in the old Firehouse theatre, working on various productions. It was there that faculty members taught her the importance of establishing a strong sense of place, crafting multidimensional, multifaceted characters, and finding her voice, reminding her, “You don’t have to scream. You simply have to speak with passion and conviction so that the world can hear you.” Those words in particular have served Hutton well throughout her professional life – first as an English teacher working with middle school students and now as a full-time author. A Western New York native, Hutton spent more than a decade in the classroom, where she witnessed up close the impact powerful stories can have on young readers’ views of themselves, the world and how they fit into it. Now she is crafting those tales herself.
Hutton began her foray into writing working on picture books, in part, she said, so that her “creative muscles wouldn’t atrophy.” Today she is the author three published books – Secret Soldiers, Soldier Boy and Don’t Look Back – all of which are geared toward high school and middle school students like the ones she taught. Secret Soldiers is an upper middle grade historical fiction novel set in World War I and stems purely from Hutton’s research and imagination. It tells the story of Thomas, a 13-year-old boy who joins a specialized group of soldiers who work in the tunnels along the Western Front. Soldier Boy is a young adult novel based on the true story of Ricky Richard Anywar, a Ugandan boy who was forced to fight in Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and Don’t Look Back is a young adult memoir that chronicles the life of Achut Deng, a Sudanese Lost Girl who had to flee her family’s home after it was attacked during the nation’s brutal civil war. Hutton said she was particularly honored to be trusted to tell Anywar and Deng’s stories. The Le Moyne alumna worked closely with them throughout the writing process to ensure that she was sharing their experiences in a way that was “caring, compassionate and authentic.” She noted that while each of the stories is distinct, they are all centered on family and resiliency, offering a window and a mirror to the wider world.
“It’s been an honor to share stories with young readers, and I hope that these books will foster and expand their sense of empathy and give them more of a global perspective,” she said. “I want my audience to learn about different cultures and experiences, as well as the universal threads that bind us all together. I’ve found that when you can emotionally connect young readers to a story, that usually motivates them to take action is some way too, for example, exposing and addressing injustices. And that brings me back full circle to my Jesuit education.”
Booklist named Soldier Boy one of the top ten first novels in 2017 and one of the top ten historical novels for youth in 2018. Her second novel, Secret Soldiers, was a 2020 Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year and 2020 Children's Book Council Notable Social Studies Book for Young People. Her third novel, Don’t Look Back, was a 2023 International Literacy Association Young Adult Nonfiction Honor Book, 2023 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2023 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and 2023 Crystal Kite Award Winner.