Novels in verse have been amazingly popular this year, likely due to “The Crossover” winning the Newbery award. But there were plenty of great prose on shelves last year, like “Caminar” and, of course, “Brown Girl Dreaming”. Recently I had the pleasure of discovering “The Red Pencil” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, which also came out in 2014. Unlike the previously mentioned books, “The Red Pencil” seemed to come and go somewhat quietly. And what a shame!
This book would fit nicely in a collection of multicultural literature or a study in diversity. Amira and her family teach us about what life was like in Sudan during years of war and unrest. Her use of similes and metaphors allows Andrea Davis Pinkney to help readers better visualize the world Amira is living in. Even young readers who may be unfamiliar with the setting will be able to understand Amira’s desire to make something better of herself.
Amira and her family live in a dangerous time and place. The Janjaweed of Sudan are terrorizing villages and destroying people’s homes. Her parents often warn her of the militia, but Amira is more concerned with her sheep and drawing in the sand. She dreams of one day being able to go to school and learning to read and write. Though her father encourages her, her mother does not. In fact, her mother insists she focus on preparing to be a good wife for her future husband. Shortly after her twelfth birthday, the Janjaweed arrive, and Amira has more pressing concerns than school or marriages.
The family is awakened in the night by the sounds of helicopters, guns, and screams. Amira is surrounded by the shrieks of her neighbors and threatening flames. Black smoke fills the air, adding to the horror and confusion. While many are able to make it out alive, Amira’s father does not. Standing among the ashes and smoldering remains of her village, Amira and her family prepare for the long journey to refuge.
Kalma, the refugee camp, provides relative safety, but little comfort. The fences are made of barbed wire, and homes are made of rice paper bags. Each person is given one gallon of water per day, and meals do little to keep hunger away. Amira has little hope, until one day an intake worker comes to the camp with a bag bursting with gifts. The children gather close for their treats, and Amira is rewarded with a beautiful red pencil, her first writing utensil that’s not a stick or twig.
When Old Anwar, a family friend, sees Amira drawing with her red pencil, he offers to teach her how to write. Though it’s not the same as going to a real school, Amira takes him up on his offer. Her mother becomes furious when she learns of the plan, and insists that the lessons stop. To keep herself from becoming a permanent fixture of the camp, Amira decides to run away and go to the school she’s heard about on the news. So under the cover of night, she escapes through the barbed wire gates and strikes out alone across the desert.
She doesn’t make it far before a shadow lurks up from behind. Old Anwar offers to keep her company on her journey, as he cannot let her walk alone. The book ends with a poem called “Flight”, in which Amira describes flying high over Kalma like a sparrow, never looking down upon the camp.
“The Red Pencil” offers readers a unique way to learn about geography, culture, and character. Amira shows resiliency we hope to see in ourselves and our learners. Being a novel written in verse will make this accessible to readers as young as fourth grade. Though they may not be able to understand the motivations of groups like the Janjaweed, it will certainly be an inspirational story for them to savor. I often found myself rereading poems and pages just so I could fully digest and appreciate the beauty of the language. So go ahead and read “The Crossover” and “Brown Girl Dreaming”, but make sure to read “The Red Pencil”, too!
Title: “The Red Pencil”
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney (Connect with her on Twitter: @AndreaDavisPink)
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: September 16, 2014
You might also enjoy: “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai
My recommended age range: 4th and up