A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

WITS Voices: Poems from The Red Pencil

By Kathleen Flenniken, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Andrea Davis Pinkney has written a moving and imaginative story-in-poems for middle grade readers called The Red Pencil (Little Brown, 2014). The Red Pencil is a Global Reading Challenge selection this year and currently available as an audiobook to all Seattle Public Library cardholders until March 19. Amira is twelve years old and lives with her farming family in Darfur. After tragedy strikes, Amira and her family must relocate to a refugee camp.  All the while, Amira is hoping to learn to read.

I’m working with fifth graders at View Ridge Elementary, who are a great age for this book, and as it turns out, several of my students were already big fans of The Red Pencil. For this lesson, I brought in three of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s poems from the book on a handout. The poems are inspiring in and of themselves and don’t need any elaborate setup. We noticed and admired surprising lines, similes, and ideas, and then the students started to write.


When I draw, it’s not me doing it.
It’s my hand.
And my twig.
And my sparrow.

My hand
and my twig
and my sparrow
make the lines.

My hand and my twig
and my sparrow
do the dance
on the sand.

I never know
what my hand
and my twig
and my sparrow

will create.

My hand
holds my twig.

But my twig goes
on its own.

My sparrow – that’s what’s inside me:

—Andrea Davis Pinkney



Choose (1) one of your talents (baseball/baking/making friends/ piano/etc.).
(2) a tool you use for that activity.
(3) your own “sparrow” (what kind of totem would it be?) to represent your imagination and/or skill.

Write a poem describing what it feels like to be in the middle of creation.

You can borrow lines like:
“When I _____, it’s not me doing it…”
“I never know…”


My A

Old Anwar wraps his knobby fingers
around my hand.
Guides my finger,
helps me write.
He shows me
that in the English alphabet
his name and mine
begin the same—with an A.

“Now you,” he encourages,
watching the soil
as I slice its surface
to form the English alphabet symbol
that starts my name.

It’s a strong, handsome character,
this English-alphabet A.

My finger strikes two lean,
angled lines,
forehead to forehead
and holding hands.

I make this A
with my own special stroke.

My A
has long legs
that walk forward on the sand.

My A
marches past anything
that dares to block it.

Old Anwar purses his crinkled lips
into a smile that can only mean

“Your hand already understands
that writing letters
and drawing are the same,” he says.
“Letters are pictures that make words.”

I see what Old Anwar means.

My A
lets me feel the truth
of what he’s saying.

But still, to be certain, I ask,
“That is all there is to it?”

Old Anwar’s nod
shows me:

 —Andrea Davis Pinkney



Start your poem with the idea, “Letters are pictures that make words.” Think about the letters in your own name, beginning with your first letter. Use metaphors/similes to describe what the letter(s) look like, borrowing from your own life story.



Gamal is quick
to show me his own sheet
of yellow-lined tablet paper.
There is a picture
made in gray pencil.

It’s of a boy
with tears as big as butterflies,
fluttering out,
parading down
from eyes shut tight.

The boy
is reaching toward clouds
shaped like a mother and a father,
his hands yearning for hugs
from heavenly parents.

“Gamal,” I ask, “you have drawn

He nods.

I say,
“It is a beautiful way to cry.”

—Andrea Davis Pinkney



Describe a drawing or story that you or somebody has made, remembered, or made up.  Use similes/metaphors, like “clouds shaped like a mother and a father” and “tears as big as butterflies,” that refer to pieces of that person’s life.

At some point in the poem, you might complete this thought: “It is a beautiful way to ______________.”


Student work

We talked about some of the magic happening in these poems, the surprise of that sparrow, favorite lines and metaphors (we talk a lot about metaphor, every week). I asked students to pick one of the three poems as inspiration and a jumping off point.  The following student work is grouped according to the Andrea Davis Pinkney poems that inspired them.

“My A” Poems:

My O

My O is
an orange, a ball, a hole, a clock.

A coin, a freckle, a head, a rock
a dot, a moon, a bullet hole,

a coal, an eye of a nearly blind mole.



My S

My S is sprawled out
on the blue name tag paper.

My S, sandy and slick, hold
mysteries to be discovered later.

S’s may be fancy and bright

But my S lays in leaves
and goes out at night.

My S is picky and a chooser.

But nobody ever shall call
my S a loser.

My S represents stories
with one very pen.

My S starts my entire name
with how many letters? Ten.

My S is splashed with green,
red, and blue.

But my S is stuck to my name,
just like glue.



Letter Poem for “H”

H is train tracks, sturdy, locked in place.
H is a seesaw, balanced perfectly.
H is a weight, heavy as a tall mountain.
H is a cabinet, its door smooth like the wind.
H is a tall building, it reaches the sky.
H is a chair, its tall back standing strong.




My A has long legs to
run into the water to watch the sunset

My K has run away to the sun

My A runs after K

My K can’t swim
it is drowning

My A swims out and
saves K

Together they are AK or
Avery K____.

The gentle breeze blows them home.




“Q” is like a coin
ready to be spent
sitting quietly in an empty wallet.

“U” is like a pool,
waiting to be filled.
Sitting by a house
that hasn’t been built.

“I” is like a person
all alone. Waiting
waiting yet nothing

“T” is like a turtle
flipped on its back
waiting for something to help it up.

You see “Quit”
is not just a word
for someone leaving.
“Quit” is a picture
waiting to be seen.



My B

My B is like a missing piece of a puzzle
to a Butterfly. My B is like two drums
side by side banging in harmony. My B
is like two grass woven baskets holding
food to bring to the hungry people.




Who came up with S?
Just a squiggle line.

But the start of words
that are scary
enough to see.

You can’t see with eyes
if there’s no word for it.

H is a ladder
so you climb
to the top.

The top is pointless
if there’s nothing
to it.

You can’t make the sound
if “sh” was invisible.

If you’re funny
then the new word
“humor” might excite you.

The snake makes that
sound up at the top,
and at the top of
the ladder, it waits.



Upside Down

G looks like a line pointing at me
that’s rude
e looks like a swirly line
o looks like o
r looks like a wannabe cursive letter
g looks like a bumper car
e looks like a squiggly line

and that’s my name




Every stroke is
a slide, and
you start at
the top and you
don’t know
where you’re
going to
end up.
Watch a second
when you’re
waiting to
go down,
your curiosity
gets the
best of
you. Then
when you
get to
the top,
you start
to wonder
if you’re
ever going
to see
your family
You wave
you plunge into
deep darkness.
Then, you go on
a loop-d-loop.
When you get
to the end,
you come
out and
are blinded
by the
bright lights.
You look around,
and you’re
back where
you started.



My E My M My I and My L

My E is my
enthusiasm that
pumps through
my blood.

My E is the
energy that strikes
a tree in half.

My M is for the
melancholy that flows
out of sight
like a stream.

My M is the
mourning that
causes sadness.

My I is

My I
is the enlightenment
our world.

My L
is the nature
that gives life.

and My L
My L is the
joy, the joy
that we can’t
last without.



Sparrow Poems:

Earth Worm

The words I write come
from deep inside me trying
to poke their faces in the clean
air and revealing themselves
on the paper.

My worm it squiggles and wiggles
through my mind so it will
be able to dance through
the blue lines on the pages.

My worm can take any shape
from the flowing characters
of Arabic to the strong letters
of English.

My worm digs through the earth
silently moving until my work
begins its finish.



Do the 100m

When I run the 100m its not me doing it
it’s not me it’s the cheetah inside of me

I never know how fast
I can run 10 mph whoa!

When I do the high jump
it’s not me doing it,
it’s the bird inside of me

I never knew that I could
soar above the high
jump bar

When I do the long jump
It’s not me doing it
it’s the beast inside of me

I never knew that
I could jump over the


Track is the
word of the day
because no one’s as fast
as me, drop the mic





When I play football, it is not me
running down the field
It is my cleats, and my
When I play football I run for the
But it is not me,
it is my socks, and my
When I play football, I throw the ball
but it is not me
it is my pads on my shoulder
and my
When I play football I kick the ball
into the posts
but it is not me it is
my kneepads and my
When I play football it is not
me punting the ball down the field
it is my cleats and my

It is a beautiful way to
have fun



Fingers, Keys, Cat

When I play piano I let my
imagination roam free.

When I play piano my fingers
feel like a cat on the keys.

My fingers bound and pounce
on keys, hunting for the one that feels

My fingers reach keys far
away, as if catching a bird in flight.

My fingers run across the
keys, as fast as I can.

When I play music my fingers
roam free, like an energetic playful



Voice, Music, Whale

When I sing my whale is released
Splash! A wave of sound overtakes

My voice swims to the surface
then escapes into the room

The music in the background up and down
it dances

My whale flips its tail another verse

My voice, my music, my whale



Hand, Hammer, Beaver

When I pick up my hammer
I trigger my inner

my hand
my hammer
and my inner
beaver, drive the nail in

my hand
my hammer
and my beaver
jump on the nail



Music—It’s Not Me

when I listen to
music it is not me doing it

it’s my ear
listening to the headphones

blasting Prince
into my brain
and my starfish

It’s not me that sings
along my lungs
and my starfish

I never know how loud

My lungs and ears
will listen

and my starfish makes
me sing

My lungs blast out
power not me and
my mouth cooperates
too it opens and
won’t shut

My starfish—that’s what’s inside



Butterflies Poems: 

Nighttime in Paradise

The grass, folding into grays with the deep indigo sky.
The stars silver lights full of hope. The flowers pulled
in tight like lovely ladies, with bright dresses, soundly
slumbering in crisp satin sheets, beauty within beauty.

The fireflies like fairy lanterns lighting the way, pure
golden love, trickling from one to another.
Run up the hill, spread your arms open wide, like
a hawk opening its majestic wings. Soar, like the owl,
silent creature of the night.
let the cool breeze carry your sleep. Let the waves
bring you to another land.

What a wonderful way
to dream.



Apple Tree

The little girl sits under the apple tree
drawing the sky.

She is looking up at the clouds
wondering what they feel like.

Each stroke of her pencil reveals
a new world.

She wonders how tall the sky is.

An apple falls, a bird chirps,
the wind blows.




I see a canvas
with gray waves
and an almost blank sky
then there in the middle of the canvas
I see a bright orange strip
fading into the sky
It is like joy coming to the world
I see the dark
I see the light
I see beauty
I see the sun rise



Cracked and Crooked

I take my time
Swifting the pencil back and forth
Catching the ideas going through my head
Lowering them down on the sheet of paper
Not a single thought on what will end up
And then it happens—
a tree with branches reaching toward
every direction
About to collapse
Cracked, and crooked
It is one of my favorite



To My Mom

Olivia is quick to show me her work

It is students in a classroom
writing for countless hours

She has stacks of paper all around her

Each paper has countless sentences and
each stack has hundreds of paragraphs

Everything has so much detail
her face’s expression tells me that she wants

to be done at last

Each stack as big as the twin towers

I ask Olivia, my Mom, “Did you draw this?” She nods yes

It is a beautiful way to write



The Knowledgeable Table

One corner to the wall,
then the second, then the third,
and finally the fourth,
the final and last.

I step back to admire my crooked
hanging skills. As I look at the paper
the familiar shape fills me head.

Bursts of color grab my attention
and hold it. As I look up to the top
of my poster, the big bolded words
stand out—

The Periodic Table

I’m granted my wish of hanging my first
“poster.” I’m satisfied, for I have just
gained my little knowledge for what is
known as the long road of changing
the world.

After all, there are only seven years
until I go to college. And all
that’s standing in my way
is that I am only 11 years old.




the bird takes off flapping
faster than you could say
gosh dang crushing the wind
soaring through the air like
an “arrowinouter” defying
the source of gravity eager
to see what’s next


Kathleen Flenniken is the author of two poetry collections: Plume, winner of the Washington State Book Award and finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Famous, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Her awards include a fellowship from the NEA and a Pushcart Prize. She served as Washington State Poet Laureate from 2012 – 2014.

Posted in Writers in the Schools2018/19 Season