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The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil

Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Published by Little Brown in 2014
ISBN-13: 9780316247801
Grades 4 and up

Book Review

Turning twelve is supposed to be an important and celebratory experience for Amira. And at first, it is: she’s finally old enough to wear a toob, the promise of a hearty wheat harvest surrounds her family, and the gift of a sturdy drawing twig enables her dreams to soar. Among those wishes is the chance to attend Gad Primary School, one of the few schools in Darfur to welcome girls. Amira’s hopes are seemingly shattered when she is displaced by an abrupt and violent Janjaweed attack on her village and thus embarks on a treacherous journey to the refugee camp in Kalma. There, she retreats into silence and swallows her sorrow until a small gift of the titular red pencil reminds her that there is power and possibility in life. With a poignant first-person perspective, Coretta Scott King Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney weaves a compelling verse novel not just about the complexities of war, but also of the human spirit. Paired with award winning illustrator Shane W. Evans’s emotionally raw, clean-lined drawings, the story of Amira’s plight is poetry amplified. For additional insight into the political and historical context surrounding Amira’s experience, Pinkney provides a riveting author’s note about the Darfur conflict. Share this stunning novel with your students for deeper insight into the tragedies and triumphs children experience in wartime or for an engaging study of the beauty and power of language and verse.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
A Novel in Verse: The choice to write the novel in verse rather than prose is intentional and, as such, integral to students’ understanding of The Red Pencil. Consider elements of poetry that may need to be explored to support student understanding of the book. In what ways are Pinkney’s line breaks, stanza breaks, use of white space, and word choice part of the story itself. What do students notice about the sounds and structures Pinkney uses to portray Amira’s thoughts, feelings, and life experiences? Have students select their favorite poems/chapters as a mentor text for their own poetry writing. Consider supporting students to develop original characters as Pinkney did and use poetry to convey historically grounded events. Reading additional novels in verse such as Home of the Brave, Caminar, All the Broken Pieces and Aleutian Sparrow will provide additional inspiration and models for students’ compositions. 
The Red Pencil: The Sequel. What happens next? Where do Old Anwar and Amira wind up after they flee the Kalma Refugee Camp? Do they actually get out of the camp? What would Amira be doing now, a decade later? Have your students research more about the Sudan and South Sudan over the past ten years, and then write a sequel to The Red Pencil that takes place at any point from 2005-2014.
The Many Meanings of the Moon. Throughout the book, the moon plays an important role in the story, revealing to Amira the passing of time, and revealing to the reader various beliefs about the moon held by the Fur people of Darfur. Pinkney states in her Author’s Note that she learned of these beliefs in her many interviews with Darfurian refugees while conducting research for this book. What are other beliefs about the moon held by people, communities, and cultures around the world and throughout time? Have your students explore some of the books listed below and write poems about these varying understandings and beliefs about the power and meaning of the moon. Consider having your students create Moon Journals to track the moon over the course of a month and to use as their drawings/ jottings as inspiration for further writing. Use Pinkney’s poetry in the novel as a mentor text for student writing.
The Flicker Box. In the novel, Amira is surprised by the “Flicker Box” attached to a large pole in the refugee camp. The reader understands that this is a television, and the “pink people” within speaking English are most likely American or European broadcasters. Can your students imagine a world without a television or other screens? Have students interview senior citizens in your community about their first moments with technology. When was the first time they saw a television? Watched a presidential speech instead of listening to it on the radio? Saw a photograph of the Earth from space? Have students co-author narratives of this experience with the seniors, and perhaps publish the collection to add to your town or city’s library.
Girls and Literacy. The Red Pencil  is a powerful text to support a larger study on girls and literacy. Consider timing your study of the book around the time of the United Nations International Day of the Girl celebrated every year on October 11th. Support students to consider issues of girls and literacy within and beyond the text: Why do you think Dando and Old Anwar both feel that Amira should be allowed to learn to read, but not Amira’s mother? Why would it be more difficult for Amira’s mother to be open to change, even before the family’s life changes with the loss of Dando and their farm? Are women more typically advocates for girls’ literacy around the world? Can such a generalization be made? Have students research more about girls and literacy internationally. Visit LitWorld’s 10,000 Global Girls page and consider having students take action by writing about and standing up for girls using LitWorld’s suggestions or by creating your own.
Learning an Alphabet. Students reading The Red Pencil most likely have many years of reading already behind them, and many years of writing their name. They may not be able to remember when they first started to form letters. What is the feeling of seeing your name written for the first time, as Amira does on p. 228. Invite speakers of other languages who use a different alphabet, such as Arabic or Chinese, come to class and teach students how to write their name in the new alphabet. Have students document what connection they feel to their name in this new form.
Found Art. Throughout the book characters use found objects and turn them into treasures. Draw students’ attention to how Leila turns a bottle into a baby doll. In what ways does this demonstrate ingenuity and creativity? How does the fight with Gamal over the bottle further demonstrate the value of the object? Support students to notice other moments in the text where found objects become something new such as when Amira turns the colored trash bags into flowers. Finding new uses for objects is called “upcycling”. Research with students how people across the world are upcycling to create art towards social change. Consider with students the difference between upcycling as a creative outlet and upcycling as a necessity.

The Power of the Pencil. In The Red Pencil, reading and writing gives Amira a voice. She is able to communicate her ideas and participate in the world in new ways. Pair your students’ reading of The Red Pencil with a viewing of the United Nations speech by Malala Yousafzai following her attack on her school bus ride. Support students to make connections between Amira and Malala’s life circumstances and the ways that reading and writing changes their lives. Consider with students the issues of power and fear that are associated with girls and literacy both in the novel and in various regions of the world. In what ways are Muma’s fears about her daughter’s literacy development surprising to us? How can we come to better understand her position? In what ways is a pencil a powerful weapon for social change?

Global Text Clubs: The Red Pencil, The Breadwinner, and Shabanu. Both The Red Pencil and The Breadwinner trilogy by Deborah Ellis, and Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples feature girls coming of age. Support students in text clubs to closely read one novel to consider the ways girls are positioned as both powerful and powerless and to gather deeper understanding about another part of the world.  Consider having students share their interpretations of the books with one another through digital storytelling by weaving images they find online, text, and sound to help convey the messages of each story. Explore with students the complexity of how these authors write about other people’s experiences. What responsibility did both Andrea Davis Pinkney, Deborah Ellis and Suzanne Fisher Staples have to research the people who inspired their work? In what ways do they serve a critical role towards furthering girls’ human rights by writing about international conflicts and atrocities?
Gathering Details to Learn More about Darfur and the Sudan. Support students to gather details about Darfur and the Sudan throughout their reading of The Red Pencil. Chart words that may be unfamiliar to students such as toob, genocide, militia, renegades, and Janjaweed supporting students to consider their meanings within and beyond the text. Use the map in the front of the book, as well as online resources, to better understand the geography of Darfur and its impact on the people who live there. For example, consider the origins of the Janjaweed militia in response to scarce water and land resources. Research with students Darfur today and groups such as Human Rights Watch and The International Crisis Group to better understand international efforts to end conflict in this region of the world.
The Power of Artistic Expression. Throughout the novel, Amira uses art as a vehicle to express her dreams, hopes, and sorrows. Invite students to consider the power artistic expression has in their own lives. How do they use various art forms, such as visual arts, music, drama, and dance as an outlet for strong emotions or as a medium for self expression? What is their “Turning-Twelve Twig” or  “Red Pencil”? Consider developing a multi-media performance that offers students a chance to showcase their artistic preferences.
Further Explorations
Digital Resources
Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Official Website

The Horn Book: Profile of Andrea Davis Pinkney
Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times
South Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times
NPR, Stories about South Sudan
ACT for Sudan
United Nations Mission in Sudan
Lit World
Women and Literacy, the UN
Red Pencil International
Applegate, K. (2007). Home of the brave. New York: Feiwel and Friends.
Burg, A. E. (2009). All the broken pieces: A novel in verse. New York: Scholastic.
Brown, S. (2014). Caminar. Somerville, MA; Candlewick Press.
Ellis, D. (2000). The breadwinner. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Hesse, K. (2003). Aleutian sparrow. New York: Margaret K. McElderry.
Nagai, M. (2014). Dust of Eden. New York. Albert Whitman.
Park, L.S. (2010). A long walk to water: A novel: Based on a true story. New York: Clarion Books. 
Staples, S.F. (1989). Shabanu: Daughter of the wind. New York: Random House. 
Whitman, S. (2013). The milk of birds. New York: Atheneum.
Winter, J. (2014). Malala, a brave girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a brave boy from Pakistan. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.


  1. Great post! Room to Read, an amazing nonprofit that helps girls achieve literacy and an education globally, would also be a great resource to add to the list.