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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Red Pencil, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Shane W. Evans. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2014. $19.00 ages 9 and up

"I want
to make words,
draw slants
and dots
and circle shapes
for others' eyes to see.

I want
to teach it all to girls and boys,
ready to read and rise."

Amira is a born artist. She loves to draw with sharp sticks in the dirt, and wants more than anything to go to school. But a twelve-year girl, according to her mother and her Sudanese traditions, should want nothing to do with school and everything to do with learning how to work the farm and to be a good wife and mother:

"When I dare speak
of my thirst
for books
and writing,
and the discovery of numbers,
Muma scolds me with her eyes.

"Schooling costs money we do not have," she says.
"What they teach from those books
is useless to you, Amira.
We need you here, to milk our cows,
to pick okra and melons,
to rake."

I do not like hearing this.
I do not like what I know Muma will say next.

when you marry,
you will not need to read.
A good wife lets her husband do the reading."

Their peaceful farm life implodes when her father is killed in an attack by the Janjaweed. Amira, her Muma, her sister Leila and their old friend Anwar must leave their home for a refugee shelter, where there is little space and much hunger. The loss of her father has lasting effects on the small family left behind; their grief is captured eloquently by the author. Amira is rendered mute by the horrors of the death and destruction.

Ms. Pinkney does not avoid the harsh realities of lives changed forever. The days are long. Anwar spends endless time with Amira teaching her to read and write. When an aide worker gifts her a red pencil and a yellow notepad, Amira begins the long healing process that results in an even stronger desire to follow her heart.

Shane Evans adds a subtle layer of understanding with his effective line drawings. His art carefully matches the story as it shifts from the early days of happy play to the drama that becomes their life, when the family is first attacked and then must move to the crowded camp.

This is a powerful and terrifying story, achingly beautiful in the telling. Using free verse to share the shocking reality of what life is like for so many in war-torn countries, Ms. Pinkney is astute in her observations and hopeful in establishing the resilience of a young woman in the face of such adversity.

Back matter includes a note from the author explaining how knowledge of the Darfur conflict and the resulting human casualties led to her write the story of the many children affected, using a singular voice to make it more personal. A glossary and pronunciation guide, and a list of important terms are added.

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