FINDING THE RED PENCIL by Andrea Davis Pinkney

There she was, her hand outstretched, inviting me to follow. It was four  in the morning, the time I wake up to write.  This beautiful child roused me from sleep, gently coaxing me with a whisper: Andrea, come.


It was a chilly autumn crack-of-dawn in 2011. Around this time, I’d been doing extensive reading about the war in Sudan that began 2004, and had become intrigued by the Darfur genocide. I’d spent many evenings watching news accounts of the crisis and studying books about its impact on children. (I don’t recommend this kind of stimulation at bedtime.)


Having traveled  in Africa, and having visited schools there, I was heartbroken by the events as they unfolded in Sudan. I encountered numerous accounts of girls and boys living among the horrors. Their stories pierced me.


Many mornings, I woke with my heart pounding like a hammer in my chest after dreaming about the attacks in Darfur. I would open my eyes, blinking, and asking the darkness:  Can any of us make sense of war?


I started to wonder how children living among daily tragedies get through them. I had no sure answers. I needed help. I needed an angel to show me a path. That’s when she appeared, this sweet messenger. On what seemed like the darkest morning ever, when not even a sliver of moon gave way to light, a twelve-year-old Sudanese girl greeted me. Her name was Amira. She arrived with other children.  In a chorus that was also a plea, they urged:

“YOU  must now tell, Andrea!”

“YOU must speak our story!”

“Andrea, this is how salvation will come!”


Amira and those children surrounded me, singing this refrain. They tugged at my soul.  And so, I began my novel, The Red Pencil.  The writing overtook me. It was a greater power, fueled by Amira’s presence and the collective voices of these Sudanese children. They seemed happy to know that their plights and joys were about to be shared.


The Red Pencil is a work of fiction. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Amira and her deep desire to learn to read and write against the wishes of her traditional farming family. Then comes war. And ravage. And gunfire. And change. When Amira receives the simple gift of a red pencil, a miracle occurs that changes her destiny forever. Though I’m the book’s author, in crafting Amira’s narrative, it was as if she presented me with her pencil so that I could find the story that needed to be told.


The Red Pencil  is part-novel, part-sketchpad. It’s inspired by true events and rooted in facts. Shane Evans’ illustrations, which appear throughout, are renderings made to look as if they’re crafted from Amira’s own hands. These drawings celebrate the power of creativity in the wake of devastation.


As I shaped the story, I also dove into full-scale research. Through my association with LitWorld, a global literacy advocacy organization, I learned that more than 500 million girls and women worldwide can’t read or write. This is especially true in developing nations. In Darfur, the illiteracy rate among girls is alarmingly high, due to the costs associated with attending school, and the belief that girls are most useful at home, tending to farm chores and household duties, while they prepare to marry.


I believe that when I’m meant to do something, longing and intention come together at the exact right moment.  As I started to craft The Red Pencil, I kept meeting Sudanese people who had lived in refugee camps and had survived the war. As if by some sort of psychic magic, I found myself being introduced to relief counselors who had served on the front lines, working with families and children during the worst parts of the Darfur conflict, helping them recover emotionally from the suffering they’d endured.

In the spring of 2012, I met Abdalmageed S. Haroun, a  Darfurian man who was an embodiment of the spirit-children that had urged me to present the truths of their war-torn lives.  Abdalmageed encouraged me to write this book, and he promised to do whatever it would take to help me authenticate and complete the novel. We spent many hours together. He graciously offered personal details about his own escape from a Sudanese  refugee camp, and about the village where he and his family lived peacefully until the Janjaweed militia attacked.


Abdalmageed and I sat together over a period of months, reading through the novel’s manuscript, page-by-page, ensuring that the narrative rang true, and that all the facts and nuances about farm life, animal habits, weather patterns, and tribal customs were genuine and accessible to kids.


As I wrote, young Amira’s essence cupped its hands at my ear and whispered her day-to-day happenings in the poetic form. This is why The Red Pencil is written in verse. I believe I was serving as Amira’s instrument.  It was soon apparent that telling her story in verse could be a means of insulating young readers from the unthinkable, and could offer a way to make the terror of war easier to comprehend. This was especially important for reluctant readers.


As an author, I visit schools in countries all over the world. My time spent in classrooms was another inspiration for creating The Red Pencil. Thank goodness for middle school students who tell you exactly what they think about the world and its troubles, and how they plan to fix things.  These kids are among the most sincere people on the planet. Their hearts are filled with hope, and they’re  always striving to do the right thing.  During my travels, I was struck by the sincerity of so many middle school kids  ― including my own two children ― who were trying with all their might to understand the situation in Darfur. Like the solving of a puzzle, they were eager to make sense of the Darfur genocide.


In an effort to shed peace and to help conditions in Sudan, many school children were conducting bake sales and fundraisers for the Lost Boys of Sudan. They were hosting concerts and art shows to raise funds for Sudanese refugees. These kids wanted to make the world a better place through their efforts, and they were willing to go to great lengths to make sure their contributions had a positive impact.


Their determination ― and the goodness with which they carried out their missions ― inspired me further. Though The Red Pencil delves deeply into war’s ugly realities, the book isn’t all sad. It was important to me to show that hope and celebration can shine, even in the darkest times, and that joy is an important ingredient to change.


redpencil_interior5Amira’s world is filled with happy things that every child experiences. Things like pets, giggles, games, loving parents, sisters, best friends, and school.  Also, readers don’t need to be of African descent to enjoy Amira’s narrative. Her story is one of resilience and love, and the power of the human spirit.


In my recent visits with school children, young readers have told me how they experience the novel. One child expressed it with a simple sentiment: Writing and drawing can help you feel better, even when things are very bad. This shows me that kids see beyond the details of war’s sadness. They can look to the light of a new day that comes through their own creativity.  By coming to know the stories of other children who’ve risen above sorrow, kids everywhere can wake up on a dark morning with hearts and souls filled with hope.


Listen to a podcast interview with Andrea Davis Pinkney by clicking this link.

Click here for the downloadable and free The Red Pencil Educator Guide.


RedPencilPhotoAndrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of many books for children and young adults. She was recently selected to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, an award which recognizes her significant contributions to literature for young people provided through a body of work. To learn more, please visit: You can also find her on Twitter @AndreaDavisPink and on Facebook.