Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

The Red Pencil is a novel in verse for young readers aged 9 to 12 that explores the Darfur genocide.

Twelve year old Amira Bright lives with her Dando, Muma and her little sister Leila on a vegetable farm. Her Dando grows tomatoes and okra and they have sheep as well. Amira is desperate to go to school but her mother does not feel schooling has any advantage for Amira, who is expected to marry. Amira's mother is like most in their village - bound by tradition.
"When it comes to schooling,
my mother is the most tight-minded of anyone."

Amira's mother believes marriage and farm chores are more important. But Amira feels her mother is locked in a "hut of tradition...with no windows for letting in fresh ideas."

Unlike Amira's family, her best friend Halima's family has left their village, moving to Darfur's largest town, Nyala. Halima's parents hope to send her to Gad Primary School which accepts girls.

One of Amira's neighbours, Old Anwar often argues with Dando about silly things such as the size of their tomatoes.When Amira admonishes her father for his feud with their neighbour he tells her that they are in a contest.

Overshadowing Amira's life is the threat of war. Dando tells her the war is about land and that,
"Brothers are killing each other
over the belief
that in the Almighty's eyes
some people are superior."

For her twelfth birthday, Dando gives Amira a sturdy branch with which to make pictures in the goz or sand. Amira loves to draw and spends much time doing this. But Amira's dream is to go to school and whenever she talks about school, her mother scolds her telling her they do not have the means.

One day Amira's mother warns her about the Janjaweed militia and that if they attack she is to run. After this warning, Amira notices that her village neighbours are stalked by the constant fear of attack by these dangerous people. That attack comes to pass one day when helicopters and Janjaweed riding camels attack and burn her village to the ground. Amira manages to escape but witnesses the murder of her father. Left with nothing, Amira, Leila, Muma, Anwar and Gamal, a boy who is friends with Leila set out to find safety.

After walking many nights, Amira and her family reach a Displaced Persons Camp at Kalma where they live in a structure made out of rice-bag scraps. Food and water are rationed as there are thousands in the camp - a number Amira finds unbelievable. Amira is so traumatized by what has happened to her family that she is unable to speak. It is Miss Sabine with her pencils and notebooks who helps Amira find her way out of her grief. A visitor to Kalma from Sudan Relief, Miss Sabine gives the children paper pads and pencils and for Amira, a beautiful, red pencil. Amira cherishes her red pencil as it re-ignites her desire to learn and to go to school. Locked in the safety of the camp means her dream might never happen but for some unexpected help from an unlikely person.


The Red Pencil tells the story of the Darfur conflict through the eyes of a young girl. At the back of the novel, Pinkney provides readers with the backstory; a civil war that led to the Sudan government's use of the Janjaweed militia made up of Arab groups to fight rebellion by two groups opposed to the government.The name "Janjaweed" means "devils on horseback".  The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Darfuri civilians began in 2003 and continues to this day and is now widely considered to be genocide. The whys of the conflict are not deeply explored in this novel for younger readers as they are complex and date back to Sudan's independence from Britain in 1956. Instead the story focuses on the trauma the survivors like Amira and her mother experience.

Amira's life is simple and unencumbered. She lives on a farm where their food is grown and the major difficulties are carrying water, birthing lambs and dealing with haboob - sandstorms. The cycle of life passes simply from mother to daughter, from family to family. The attack leaves her afraid and unable to speak.

Pinkney captures Amira's distress in a straightforward manner. Amira is completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of both her personal tragedy and the displacement of thousands of others.

Everywhere bodies:
          We've fled
           peaceful homes.

Beautiful villages,
              Abundant farms.

              Forced to leave
              Prosperous lands
              whose unfortunate luck
              has set us in unsafe places,
              making us prey
              to the Janjaweed.

When she cannot speak her Muma tells her
"Amira, sorrow's fence
has locked you in," she says.
"The only way out is through time."

The conflict and what has happened to her also leaves Amira determined to achieve her goal of becoming educated. The gift of a red pencil helps her regain her voice and her determination.
"Today the red pencil does more
than beg for my hand.

It makes me a promise.
It tells me to try."

Amira eventually discovers that not only does she want to learn to read and write but she wants to teach others too.

Amira is strong, resilient and decides to take her future into her own hands. She sees in the young girl married to a much older man and now pregnant, her possible future. Leaving the camp is dangerous but, like the flies caught in the Fanta bottle, she must either flee the camp or die inside. It is the flies caught in the Fanta bottle that make Amira realize her situation;
"Maybe they know there's a way out,
but are too frightened by the possibility." 

Just as the flies cannot stay inside the bottle forever, Amira knows she too cannot stay in the camp forever. She must flee the camp to live the life she desperately wants or  stay and see her dreams and hopes die.

Amira represents the hundreds of millions girls and women throughout the world who are unable to read or write and who have little chance of obtaining a basic education because of cultural restrictions and/or poverty.

This novel written in free verse is illustrated by Coretta Scot King Award Winner, Shane W. Evans' grey coloured line drawings. The author has included an very informative Author's Note explaining the Darfurian crisis. The Red Pencil is based on Andrea Davis Pinkney's extensive research and interviews with people who lived through the Darfur conflict. Her novel contains many interesting references to tribal life including calling the moon which young readers will find fascinating.

For those wishing to learn more about the Darfur genocide check out the Darfur page at World Without Genocide and Save Darfur.

The Red Pencil is a sensitive, well crafted novel. Pinkney's sparse poetry combined with Evans' simple line drawings convey both the beauty of tribal life in Western Sudan as well as the brutality of a conflict that has affected millions.

Book Details:

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Boston: Little, Brown and Company 2014
309 pp.

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