Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: The Red Pencil

Title: The Red Pencil
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 336
Review Copy: Digital ARC via NetGalley
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: "Amira, look at me," Muma insists. She collects both my hands in hers."The Janjaweed attack without warning. If ever they come-- run."

Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala-- Amira's one true dream. But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey-- on foot-- to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind-- and all kinds of possibilities.

Review: In May of this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture "Rejoice the Legacy" presented by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Her presentation was inspiring and all kinds of fabulous. You can watch it below. As part of the lecture, she introduced her newest book, The Red Pencil. 

Andrea Davis Pinkney is a gifted storyteller and just as she explained in the lecture, she managed to share both the beauty and the plight of the people of Sudan through this book. It's a middle grade book, so the use of free verse poetry was one way that Pinkney shared the violence, but also sheltered the readers from some of it. Readers will clearly see the death and devastation, but the spare words keep it from being overwhelming. Careful readers will still see enough details to know that the situation is horrific and not one anybody would wish on others.

Pinkney begins the story before tragedy comes to Amira's family. We see the powerful love in her family. We also see that their way of life has many strengths. There are a few challenges too, which include the resistance of Amira's mother to the idea of schooling for girls. My favorite part of the book is the game What Else is Possible? that Amira and her father play. Her father explains why they have this game:

He says,
"Worrying, that is a waste of time.
Better to ask, 'What else is possible?'"

When worrying about something, instead of focusing on the horrible outcomes that are possible, they guess only positive answers to the question. Amira says it this way:

What Else is Possible?
is a game about looking at things
in shiny ways.

I read this book three months ago, but didn't review it at the time. More than anything else, this game stuck with me. This ability to look for the possibilities is one of the strengths that sustains Amira. Of course, she also has her creativity with art and words. From the beginning we see that Amira creates pictures with her stick and with her words. Creating pictures in the sand comes as naturally to her as breathing. Along with her family, drawing is her joy. She also has a gift with words. She plays with them and has a unique voice. I love her descriptions like this one about her friend's mother:

Words flap from her
like giddy chickens escaping their pen.

The Red Pencil will be a book that I will be sharing enthusiastically with teachers and students. It allows us to see a young girl and her resilience in the face of heart-breaking circumstances. It also provides us with a window to another part of the world.

Audio snippet - Andrea Davis Pinkney reading a few poems from the book

(comments about The Red Pencil begin at 1:16:54)

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