The Red Pencil is a verse novel. I adore verse novels. Reading this one I knew I would be taken on a hugely emotional journey. It is a long book at 308 pages and yet I read it all in one sitting. I will recommend this text to senior primary students and to teachers exploring the topic of refugees.
The Red Pencil is a beautifully crafted and very important story especially right now with so many people from around the world forced to move from their home and seek refuge often in distant places.
Amira has just turned twelve. Her life is a happy one but she has one desperate desire - to go to school, to learn, to enjoy a life of possibilities beyond those offered in her small Sudanese village. In part one, Our farm South Darfur, Africa September 2003 - March 2004 we read about daily life - the struggles and love in this family. Every family in the village watched the moon.
"A hiding moon is a curse
luck is sure to fall
That is why we wake the moon.
Tradition tells us
to make the waking loud.
To rouse that moon.
To scare it out,
to full sight."
Little sister Leila is born on a night when the moon stays hidden. She is born with oddly shaped legs and a crooked spine but she will grow into a girl with inspirational determination.
There is a threat hanging over this small community. The Janjaweed are a group of militia. The word janaweed means devils on horseback. They attack Amira's village, her father is killed and so the remaining villagers including Amira, her mother and little sister must flee. The journey is dangerous and terrifying.
"Our weary feet
across vast sheets of sand,
rolled out like a rippling carpet,
leading to uncertainty"
Eventually the group reach a displaced persons camp and so the story moves to Part 2 Kalma April 2004 - June 2004. It is in this camp that Amira is given her precious red pencil by a aid worker. She also begins important, but secret lessons, with Old Anwar. It is these two things which rekindle her dreams of education and a different life path.
Here is a detailed review. You can read the author's experience and listen to a podcast. Here is a video where Andrea Davis Pinkney talks about her book.
You might also like to read the Horn Book review. Our copy of The red pencil contains a discussion guide, Sudanese word list and author notes.
I would recommend you also read A long walk to water, Inside out and back again, Secrets in the fire, and the picture book Four feet two sandals.