C&C: Two Novels about Sudanese Refugees

A comparison and contrast of two similar middle grade books.

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Last summer, N and I read two novels about Sudanese refugees.

One was A Long Walk to Water: A Novel Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park.  Although this was reviewed first, I actually read it second.

The other was The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans.  I read this one first and then traded with N, who had read Long Walk to Water first.

A Long Walk to Water

One book is a novel closely based on a true story, while the other is a wholly fiction novel in verse with illustrations.  The main character of The Red Pencil is a girl who is displaced within Sudan, while A Long Walk to Water follows a boy who is displaced outside of Sudan.

The two characters face very different pressures within the same conflict.  Both witness the traumatic deaths of family members.  Both are survivors who try to hold on to hope and be a force for good in the world.  Both suffer.  Both lose their homes and most of their families and feel like they have lost their country.  Amira finds her religion as a source of hope, while for Salva the idea of improving other people’s lives motivates him.  Salva is forced to flee further and faster because for him the consequence is to be forcibly conscripted as a child soldier if not outright murdered.  Amira is able to flee more slowly and keep some family and neighborhood connections because women and female children were aggressively pursued in a different manner, which is glossed over in this children’s book.  Both characters are in danger of their lives, and both are surprised when the violence suddenly erupts in their hometowns.

Both of these books are written by marginalized authors, but neither are written by a Sudanese refugee.  One of these is written by a Korean-American, closely referring to the true story of one Sudanese refugee and American immigrant.  The other is written and illustrated by African-Americans.

The Red Pencil cover resized

Which do I recommend?  Well that depends.  By reading both of these within a close time period, I felt like we got a decent overview of Sudanese refugees from two different viewpoints.  Together, they gave us a broader viewpoint than we would have gotten with only one.  However, we didn’t find a middle grade nonfiction text, which I would have liked to supplement these books.

The Red Pencil is better suited to younger readers, because while it does contain suspense and incredibly sad and awful events, the narrator is “safe” (we know she survives to write the story) and the violence is comparatively downplayed.  I probably wouldn’t use it in the classroom with students below fourth grade, but it could be appropriate for individual children who are younger.  This book could be read up into middle school, and probably even high school.

However, I didn’t enjoy the poetry and the illustrations didn’t balance that out.  It doesn’t seem to translate well into adult reading (as, for example, A Time to Dance or When the Mountain Meets the Moon do).

A Long Walk to Water works as an adult read, but it is very suspenseful and includes more graphic violence.  I’d use it with middle and high school students but would be cautious about using it with younger students.  Both books are appropriate for middle school students, and a comparison between the two could make for an interesting class discussion.

Generally speaking, both books were interesting, although I preferred A Long Walk to Water.  N enjoyed both books, although I find it telling that she stopped in the middle of The Red Pencil and put it down for an extended period of time.

Any books about Sudan or refugees that you recommend?

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.

Continue reading “Review: The Red Pencil”

28 Days Book Review

In short, this book is a must-have for every school library, and highly recommended for home and classroom libraries as well.

28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith Jr., Illustrated by Shane W. Evans.
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2015. 54 pages.
Non-fiction picture book.

I don’t recall if I purchased this book or was given it as a gift, but it was one of the early books that inspired the 30 day project.  This book features 29 days that chronologically tell the story of Black History.

Each day has either a single page or a two-page spread.  I am quite curious about the process used for this book, because the text and the pictures are perfect matches.  It’s quite clear that a great deal of time and thought was put into the illustrations and the layout.  Besides the gorgeous artwork of Shane Evans, the book has several features which allow it to be used at a variety of age, reading, or interest levels.

First the date is stated month/date/year.  Then one sentence briefly describes the event featured for that day.  The name of the person featured, or event occurring, is in a different font.  Then the poem or writing follows.  This is the most varied part of the book, with rhyming poems, acrostics, free verse, eulogies, or quotation from documents, speeches, or songs incorporated into various pages.  I see this portion as having classroom applications not only for Black History Month, but also in April for National Poetry Month.

28-days-a-new-resized
28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith and Shane W. Evans

Finally, each day ends with a paragraph in smaller type that gives additional background about the person or topic for that day.  This means there are four methods of interpretation for each day: the picture, the date and factual sentence, the poem or quotation, and the informative paragraph.  The parent or teacher reading this book aloud could choose to read only one or two sections, or they could read all of them.

One thing to remember when reading this book aloud is that the poetry sections vary quite a bit.  Harriet Tubman’s eulogy fills two pages, while Matthew Henson’s poem is 11 words long.  Some of the poems rely on the reader being able to see the poem, and others are meant for two voices.

Another important consideration is the content.  This book is marketed at ages 4-10, however there are some pages which may worry younger children.  Consider the child or group of children you would be reading this book to.  The kids were rather upset reading about the Dred Scott decision on Day 2.  Even though it is overturned on Day 4, if you are reading it one page each day, that may be too long.  I was able to use this book with older students as an introduction/review.

This book hits all the major court cases and many of the major “names” in Black History, along with others who may not be as familiar.  This was our first introduction to Madam C.J. Walker, although we later read a brief chapter book about her.  Matthew Henson and Robert Smalls might not be as familiar as Malcolm X and Jackie Robinson.  One odd digression is Nelson Mandela on Day 26, as he is not an American (but for some reason often included in African American history).  However, in general we really enjoyed reading a variety of poetic forms and learning about many moments in history and great figures, with vibrant illustrations to match.

Continue reading “28 Days Book Review”