I had a resolution to read more diversely this year, and I’m really pleased I started out with The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. It surprised me on a number of levels, but really hit home.
The book is told in poems, written in the voice of Amira, a 12-year-old girl who lives in Darfur with her parents. She explores growing up in a conservative village, the confusion of understanding war as a child, and the harsh realities of the genocide in Darfur. Together, these themes could make the book too heavy for its intended audience of children, but the first-person perspective of a child, along with the poetic form, help to distance the trauma just enough that I don’t feel uncomfortable recommending this to the right middle grader.
I’ll admit that I cried several times throughout the book. There is real trauma in Amira’s life – trauma that is both inflicted and dealt with in the plot of this short book. Characters are fleshed out in small aside poems, along with Amira’s own thoughts on the people in her life.
What I liked most about this book was that it didn’t expect readers to understand the situation before beginning – a short glossary of terms in the back includes some of the cultural terms Amira uses, but also words like “Janjaweed,” a concept that any adult might have trouble explaining. Readers walk with Amira through her dawning understanding of the change in her world, and so we are allowed to join her at the end of the book, as she takes the first steps toward something new.
The author, Andrewa Davis Pinkney, will be visiting Pittsburgh next month as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids Series. Follow the link for more information.