Book cover: The Red Pencilby Andrea Davis Pinkney
Little, Brown & Co, 2014
309 pgs
Grades 4-8

In The Red Pencil, Amira Bright is a young girl living in South Darfur with her mother, Muma, her father, Dando, and her little sister, Leila.

Amira knows little of the devastation perpetrated by the Janjaweed, but what she can understand is her desire to go to school — something Dando wants for her but Muma will not allow.

One day the Janjaweed arrive in their village. Amira witnesses her father’s murder, their village is destroyed, and the survivors must gather what’s left of their things and head for a safer place.

After days of travel, they arrive in Kalma — a refugee camp with thousands of other displaced people. Since the attack, Amira has been unable to speak, her words stuck in her throat.

When an aid worker gives Amira a yellow pad and a red pencil, a whole new world opens up to her.

Her voice eventually returns and so does her desire to learn to read and write.

Old Anwar, their neighbor, says he will teacher her in secret, since Muma does not approve.

Amira knows that she needs a real school to continue her education and makes a plan during the night to leave for a school her friend attends. Old Anwar catches her, angry that she would go out alone at such a dangerous time.

Amira is convinced he will take her home, but he puts her in his wheelbarrow and takes her away from Kalma, off to a future that will be as bright as Dando had always hoped.

Pinkney tells the story of Amira and her family through a series of poems, which allows her to explain the conflict in a way that younger audiences can understand without subjecting them to violent details.

The Red Pencil is a heartwarming story that really allows us to be in Amira’s shoes. The poems effortlessly flow from one to the next following Amira on her journey.

Use this book to inspire older changemakers to research conflicts and meaningful solutions, as well as to help students explore issues such as how violent conflict impacts youths, and how poetry can be a powerful tool for expressing fears, hopes, and possibility.