Andrea Davis Pinkney writes in her author’s note that The Red Pencil follows “one child’s journey through grief and possibility” during the scourge of civil war in Darfur, Sudan, in 2004. Through Pinkney’s vivid use of poetry, metaphor, and descriptive language Amira comes alive. We are touched by the simple beauty of her life before the war and the often frightening challenges she struggles to overcome when her broken family must flee to a refugee camp.
Many older students will find the entire book compelling, but it is possible to share a few poems or even phrases as powerful writing prompts. Ask students to choose a writing activity based on The Red Pencil:
1) Describe a friend or relative with the kind of vivid language Pinkney uses.
Amira writes of the mother of her good friend:
“Words flap from her
like giddy chickens escaping their pen.
She is so squawky, that woman.”
Or the impish boy Gamal, who could use an old soup can for a soccer ball.
in ‘icken oodle’
and broken bottles.
ready to take a bite
out of anything that
tastes like sticky
2) Describe something simple that you very much want or need - and imagine what happens when you get it. For Amira, it’s a rare bottle of Fanta Orange soda, shared with her younger sister Leila and Gamal.
“They pass the pop-treat back and forth,
licking their lips,
tasting the sweet on their teeth,
Then Gamal and Leila grant another surprise.
They leave the final guzzle for me,
letting me hug my bottle,
not a broken dolly,
but a sugar-bright memory
of shared joy.”
There are people as “closed-minded as donkeys/who will not turn their eyes to see anything/beyond what is right in front of them.” When a sandstorm twists through the air, “the sky is spinning a rope.” There are nights when the moon, “a glowing lady, will not cooperate./That milk-bellied lady/refuses to reveal herself.”
Pinkney wants her poetry to “encourage young readers to express their own emotions and troubles, and to find comfort in the most upsetting circumstances.” It doesn’t matter if students write in verse or prose. The goal is to use words that are vivid and memorable, making the people or events they describe so real they might be right in your own town.
The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, is the winner of the 2015 Children’s Africana Book Award, given to the best children’s and young adult books about Africa. More information at including the Read Africa Challenge.