The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
published in 2014 by Little, Brown and Company
In her small Sudanese village, Amira has grown up simply and happily.
Her parents love her. The wheat on their farm grows tall and golden. Her best friend Halima is a stone’s throw away, ready to play silly games with her, like “dizzy donkey.”
Today, Amira is celebrating her 12th birthday. She’s finally old enough to wear the long, flowing toob — a garment reserved for mature women. Life seems to be opening up for her, like a desert flower in the rain.
I wish this could be a sweet story about Amira and how she grows and steps into her adult world at peace and with joy. But this story is based on what’s really been happening in Darfur, and it’s not pretty.
The first hardship comes when Halima moves with her family to the city of Nyala in order to enroll in the best school available. Loneliness and envy gnaw at Alima’s heart.
This pales in comparison to the sudden brutality unleashed on the village when the militant Janjaweed attack, slaughtering and burning, leaving behind death, ashes, and a few traumatized survivors.
Among them are Amira, her mother, and her little sister. Also a kind man named Old Anwar. Together, they set out on foot on a desperate journey to a refugee camp.
There, we discover that trauma has stolen Amira’s speech. It’s through the unexpected magic of a red pencil and a sheet of yellow paper that she is able to find her voice, to unstopper the pain, and begin to dream of new possibilities.
This novel in verse, written by award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney, brings to our attention the extreme situation faced by so many children and families in Darfur.
There are brutal moments to be sure, though the vast majority of the novel, narrated by Amira, is of her thoughts and experiences. She processes loss, but she also extensively processes the closed doors she sees around her as a young Sudanese woman and her longing for education.
Shane Evans created this epic cover art — so arresting! — and illustrated the book with somewhat primitive images such as Amira might have drawn in a journal.
School in the Abu Shouk refugee camp
It’s a tough subject, treated with care and thoughtfulness, which seems best suited to girls ages 11 and up. I’ve previously reviewed two other excellent stories featuring Sudanese refugees: Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, reviewed here, and Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, reviewed here. Both are less traumatic than this story, so for sensitive readers, you might try one of those instead.