This novel in verse by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Coretta Scott King Award Winner Shane W. Evans, is in some ways a Sudanese version of Out of the Dust by Karen Hess.
The parallels are numerous: loss so great it’s unbearable, including the loss of a beloved parent, and conveying the pain in words shaped into poetry. I wonder at this. Does poetry move us a tiny half-step away from the pain so we’re able to look at something that’s unthinkable? Or does poetry let us sink into the loss, images filling our eyes and cloaking our souls with beautiful language, so we are immersed in the loss and sadness but the beauty of the language allows us to survive it? I tend to think it’s the latter.
The beautiful lyricism–and in this case the wonderful drawings by Evans–make art out of horror, and allow us to keep breathing as we read it. At least most of the time. The Red Pencil, like Hesse’s much acclaimed, award-winning book, allows us to hold disaster in our hands, and manage to get through it.
Amira comes of age in Sudan (Darfur). We get to see glimpses of her six-year-old self, as well as significant moments along her growing years, until she turns twelve. Her greatest joy, and the passion that belongs to her alone, is drawing with a stick in the sand. Her elder neighbor, Anwar, sees the brightness in Amira’s spirit, and encourages it.
Then the Janjaweed militia “storms her small village, shattering life as she knows it” (Jacket flap). Her loss is too great. Amira loses her ability to speak as she feels her very spirit leaking away. (Not unlike Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Only so much pain can be born before we start falling out the bottom of ourselves.
The long trip to the refugee camp is vivid and tragic; Amira has nothing. Nothing, that is, until she is given a red pencil and a tablet by a refugee worker. At first, Amira cannot even draw a line. There’s not enough spirit inside to complete one. The, slowly, slowly, the red pencil on the yellow paper allows her to express her loss, to draw what she’s seen, and life begins slowly, slowly to heal. She speaks again, and Old Anwar takes it upon himself to teach her to read. New possibilities finally begin to blossom.
Another delightful aspect of this book is the hedgehog imagery. Hedgehogs appear from time to time in Amira’s Darfur. She come to see herself as a hedgehog–a small creature who has the will and strength to break free.
If this doesn’t win all sorts of children’s book awards, I’ll be amazed.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. The Red Pencil. New York: Little Brown, 2014.