The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney is a story of refugees, war, and loss. Yet it is told beautifully through free verse poetry, from the perspective of a girl named Amira.
Amira and her family live in Sudan, and she has just turned twelve. Taking pleasure in the little things, like a perfect twig for drawing in the dirt, Amira is happy and full of life. When her best friend moves away to attend school, she wishes she could go too, but even then her optimism hardly falters.
She isn’t blind to the world around her. Amira notices the worry on her parents’ faces, the whispers of a band of militants terrorizing people in the area. Her bright little life is wrenched apart when they attack her own village, killing people close to her and forcing everyone to flee with whatever they can carry.
The story seems bleak but Amira’s creativity and strength serve to temper the sadness. In the refugee camp, there is little to be positive about. She finds things to focus on, a wandering hedgehog, the younger children’s games, and most of all, the red pencil given to her by a visitor.
Soon she is receiving secret reading and writing lessons, despite her mother’s insistence that education is useless. She discovers that letters are as much fun to draw as pictures, finding beauty in the simple curve of an O and the point of an A.
The Red Pencil is an important book, showing middle-grade readers the realities of war through the eyes of a peer. The tone strikes a perfect balance between stark reality and optimism. It holds nothing back, yet filters the sadness and terror in a way that makes it not only bearable, but engaging.