Friday, January 30, 2015

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shane Evans (Illustrations)

Diverse books are necessary to the children's literary landscape and there are not enough of them, but I know I won't remember this one in the long haul. It isn't that the verse isn't beautiful or the setting not memorable, it is the fact that the secondary characters don't come alive giving depth to the main character's journey. I kept wanting her to form a relationship with a minor character to help push the story's action forward. The plot stalls for me in spots and just when I think an interesting minor character and relationship is going to bloom, it moves on to another one too quickly. Amira's sister, Leila, interested me the most because of her grit and determination as a cripple, but she flits through the vignettes like a butterfly out of reach. Also, the Sudanese conflict in Darfur isn't explained enough and I found myself looking up answers in the encyclopedia to fill in gaps. That said, there are some interesting themes on creativity, grief, close-mindedness, and traditional values.

Darfur has been a war zone for many years with African and Arabs fighting for land. Thousands of people have been murdered and displaced and this story is about one family's life as refugees. Amira farms with her loving family in South Darfur, Africa. She has a younger sister that is crippled and enjoys a close relationship with her progressive-minded father. When the Janjaweed militia come through her village her father is killed and she must flee with other villagers to the city of Kalma. She secretly desires to be educated in a country that doesn't educate girls. Traditions are such that girls do household chores and marry, they do not need to be educated. Amira sees another girl her age married to a rude older man and can't help but notice the girl's unhappiness.

One of my favorite books is "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe. It shows the break down of traditional values in a village and how it tears apart the main character, an African man. In this story, war seems to break down traditional values, but it doesn't pull the main character apart, it makes her stronger. The limited point of view, told only from Amira, keeps the story from showing the complexity of the war going on around her. Amira doesn't understand it and while it is emotional with her grief, I wanted to get to know more of the other characters. The verse makes the plot seem sparse at times. Amira likes to draw in the dirt with a stick and her father values education. It is hinted that he wants Amira to run his farm. Amira comments on her mother's close-mindedness to her being educated. "Muma's strong beliefs/ are as blinding as a sun/ that makes her squint at new ideas." Her mother slowly changes as Amira opens her eyes to the joy of writing. When Old Anwar teaches Amira to write in secret she starts to heal from the war.

Andrea Davis Pinkney explains in an author's note that she used verse to distance the story's violence from the reader and while it does do that making it age appropriate, it also hurts the flow of the story making facts choppy along with relationships. She does show how the "toob" or Sudanese traditional dress that covers a women from head to toe, is tied in with cultural identity. It adds a richness to the text and meaning to Amira. Her mother shows her toob from when she was married while Amira passes on her toob to her sister. This generational passing down of a cultural costume gives the women a sense of identity. The reader also sees it is a symbol of economic wealth and status in the richness of Miss Sabine's dress when she comes to the refugee camp. The illustrator captures its cultural importance in the illustrations. The toob is more than a stylish dress. It represents national pride and heritage dating back hundreds of years.

Amira grieves the loss of her father and is traumatized to the point of not talking. It isn't until her pencil disappears that she regains her voice. The pencil is a symbol of changing the future and a reminder of her father who gave her a sharpened twig on her birthday so she could write in the dirt. Writing heals Amira and gives her hope for a different future. She is not interested in getting married and finding a husband. Her father and Old Anwar recognize this and mention her intelligence. She overhears her father telling Old Anwar that he will teach her, but then he dies. Old Anwar teaches her in secret when she asks him. My favorite verse is "Sweet Invitation" where Old Anwar tells her that learning isn't "...chasing the wind" but "...stirring it up." Amira sees new possibilities for the future by getting an education and is determined to change her present situation. The abrupt ending makes me wonder if there will be a sequel. This might be a nice companion to Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water" that shows the importance and difficulty of getting water in Sudan and the role of girls in getting water for the family.

3 Smileys


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