The Red Pencil is Amira’s story. Amira lives in the Sudan in northeastern Africa. The story takes place between 2000 and 2004 during the Sudanese uprising. Many Sudanese like Amira and her family were forced to flee from their homes to refugee camps to be safe from roving bands of militia.
Amira has been warned by both her parents about the Janjaweed (the militia) and that she is to RUN if she ever sees them. She can sense the unease and worry in her parents but, like most children, it often takes a back seat to her daily delights and frustrations. Amira’s childhood friend, Halima, has left with her family to go to the big city where Halima will go to a new school where girls are allowed. Amira loves drawing in the sand with her drawing twig and desperately wants to go to school. Although her father can both read and write and seems to see promise in Amira to do the same, Amira’s mother will not even consider it. She believes Amira needs to concentrate on learning how to be a good wife and run a household; learning to read and write has nothing to do with that.
Then the Janjaweed do come. And Amira’s life is torn apart. She and what is left her family along with two neighbors travel to the refugee camp. There they live in plastic tarp tents. There are far too many people for the space in the camp and Amira begins to lose the sparkle she has always radiated, the joy in her life and who she is. When a woman from the Sudanese Relief makes a brief visit to the Camp and distributes pads of paper and pencils she gives Amira a red pencil. With that red pencil Amira begins her own journey of healing and hope. She begins to draw again, which leads to her ability to communicate with the mother she loves and who has also been suffering with her grief. Their neighbor, Old Anwar, who has traveled with them begins to teach Amira to read and write in secret.
Written in free verse, Amira’s story is moving and inspirational. The free verse allows the author to speak directly about violent, frightening events in a way that is accurate but age-appropriate for young readers. Amira is a strong, well-developed female character of African and Muslim heritage who is easily relatable to readers everywhere. For its incredible story of hope and one child’s strength in the face of devastation, as well as it’s cultural significance, The Red Pencil is worth the read.