Saturday, September 27, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Living on a small farm in the Darfur region of the Sudan, Amira has just turned 12 and her father has given her a new drawing stick to make pictures in the Sudanese sand.

But now that she is old enough and her mother tries to warn her about the Janjaweed militants, Amira just doesn't want to hear about that.  What she wants is to go to school like her best friend Halima has.  And although her family is happy and hard working, there just isn't any money for school.  Besides, her mother doesn't believe that girls should be educated, except for marriage.  For now, Amira will just have to be satisfied with drawing the pictures in the sand with her stick.

Then, one peaceful morning, in the middle of chores, the Janjaweed militants sweep through Amira's village, randomly shooting at people and animals as they go.  Amira sees her beloved father shot and, when it is all over, he is dead, their home is destroyed and their livestock gone.

Traumatized, Amira loses her ability to speak.  To make matter worse, Amira, her mother, disabled younger sister Leila, along with Old Anwar, a neighbor, and Leila's friend Gamal must now walk through dark nights to reach a displaced persons camp and safety.

Life is hard and crowded in the refugee camp, impinging everywhere on Amira's grief, so deep that even when things happen that make her want to speak out, she is still unable to utter words.  Then, one day, a Sudan Relief woman arrives at the camp, bearing pencils and yellow tablets for the children.  Everyone gets a yellow pencil, except Amira, who is give the one pencil that is red.

At first, she doesn't like the short, too shinny pencil, but little by little she begins to draw pictures of her life, before on the farm and now in the refugee camp.  But now that she is able to express herself again in pictures,  will she once again find her voice?

By placing this novel in free verse from September 2003 to June 2004, and putting the narration in Amira's voice, with accompanying simple pencil drawings on each page, Pinkney wisely manages to introduce the horror of government sanctioned genocide and displacement in Darfur to young readers of The Red Pencil without scaring them away.

Indeed, Pinkney pulls the reader into the story with verse images of Amira's peaceful, ordered life with her family - her new turning-twelve-twig, the birth of her sister, later, the birth of a lamb, even raking animal plop on the family's small farm.  But the fear and danger of the trip to the camp and the chaotic life there will also keep readers turning pages.

Young readers will certainly be able to relate to Amira on some level.  She is a girl with hopes and dreams just like any 12 year old, a little strong-willed and at times defiant, but also kind and loving.  There is some mother/daughter clashing over Amira's future, some sibling fighting, and a close father/daughter relationship - just as there are in many families.  However, her story may also help readers better understand the conflict in Darfur.

But The Red Pencil isn't a book about fighting, it is a book about resilience and surviving and even hope despite everything.  And it is about doing what you need to do in order to survive and be happy.  And it is also a testament to the healing power of art.

Though occasionally there is a word or phrase that sounds a little to American and less like Amira, for the most part, Pinkney's language throughout is so beautifully lyrical, at times causing me to read passages over and over just because of her delicate, very moving way of saying something.

The Red Pencil is definitely a book everyone should read.

There is a Reading Guide for The Red Pencil from the publisher which you can download HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was obtained from the author at BEA 2014

 I chose Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions for my first book in the A More Diverse Universe Reading Challenge and How I Became a Ghost for my second book because so often children's books written by people of color are overlooked and there are so many more that there used to be and so many are so wonderful.  The Red Pencil is a middle grade novel which I chose for the same reasons.


  1. I'm really happy to see you review this book ... Andrea Pinkney is a talented writer, and I think fiction is often the best way to teach middle grade readers about difficult issues that concern non-American cultures. I'll be watching to see if this pops up on award lists in January.

  2. I think Rebecca's comment is great - I just want to say "hear hear" to it :-) And I can only imagine how difficult this book must have been to get published - great for the author!

  3. Your review gave me chills. I agree with Rebecca too. Sometimes through story-telling, we can expose children in a gentler way to some of the horrible things that have gone (and are currently going) on in our world. This book sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.


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