Review: The Red Pencil

This illuminated novel in verse tells a story of internal displacement for middle grade readers.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
Middle grade novel in verse, 331 pages including extras but not excerpts.
Lexile:  HL620L  (What does HL mean in Lexile?)
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 3.0 points)  .

Amira is a young village girl who dreams of going to school and learning to read the Koran.  But her mother desires a more traditional life for her.  Then the Janjaweed attack, and it seems like all dreams, and words, are gone forever.  Can a gift restore hope?

The Red Pencil cover resized

This one was a bit of a gamble.  I have yet to dislike a book by any of the Pinkneys – individually and collectively they are so talented that the name alone can sell me on a book.  Plus I have loved Shane Evans’ work, and the kids find his illustrations appealing too.

But.  This is a novel in verse.  I wasn’t actually aware that it was illuminated until after purchasing, and Shane Evans’s illustrations did take the edge off.  But as I’ve said before, novels in verse rarely work for me.  I love poetry and novels, but feel that the combination usually loses something.  For this reason, I don’t often seek those books out unless they come highly recommended or with an author/illustrator team I can’t ignore.

There’s something to be said for a well-designed cover, and The Red Pencil certainly is appealing.  Honestly, I was probably sucked in to buying it (vs. library checkout) by the cover, as I had previously nearly bought it at the used book store.  I didn’t really investigate the book, it probably would have been a better choice for me personally to get from the library than to buy!

The Red Pencil p26-27 resized
Pages 26 and 27 of The Red Pencil, poem “Birth Story”.

The book is divided into two main sections: before and after displacement.  Before, Amira is lovingly ensconced in her family, her biggest worries being how to go to school and the fate of a pregnant goat.

After, everything has changed and it seems that all hope is gone, along with her village, family, possessions, and everything she’s ever known.  As she deals with the trauma she’s experienced, she finds herself unable to speak.  A special gift and the mentoring of an elder provide some solace, but can Amira really regain her hope for the future?

The poems tended to be less than two pages.  Not allwere illustrated, although a good number were.  Some topics lend themselves more to illumination than others. While neither the text nor the pictures got too graphic for middle grade readers, this book is dealing with the genocide in Darfur.  Death, destruction, violence, arson, starvation, and other extreme hardships are an integral part of the story and can only be softened so much.  I felt the team did as well as could be expected in this area, glossing over many of the gory details while focusing on Amira’s experiences of the attack and losses.

The Red Pencil p28-29 resized
Pages 28 and 29 of The Red Pencil, featuring the poem “Heartbeat”.

It was a new experience to read about a family that was internally displaced.  I can’t think of any other children’s book I’ve read dealing with displacement that doesn’t involve moving to a Western country.  I’m sure they exist, but it’s not that prevalent.

As usual, when outside my knowledge base I tend to rely on others.  If you are curious about the Muslim representation in this book, Notes from an Islamic School Librarian has a review.

Personally, I didn’t feel that this book entirely succeeded in its goal.  The poetry was lacking and the story arc left a bit to be desired.  However, we did learn about Sudan and it was refreshing to read about an African Muslim girl.  Your tolerance for novels in verse may be higher and your standards for poetry may be lower.  The intended audience of 4th to 6th grade students (mostly girls) seem to be enjoying it, if N is any indication.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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