A contemporary 13-year-old Muslim teen’s life changes profoundly when American forces arrive in her war-torn Afghanistan village. Born with a cleft palate, Zulaikha’s tormented by boys calling her “donkey-face,” adults averting their eyes and an insensitive stepmother. With marriage unlikely, Zulaikha secretly learns to read and write, emulating her birth mother, who was murdered by the Taliban for keeping books. As the Americans build a village school, Zulaikha’s father wins a construction contract and arranges a marriage for her beloved sister with a wealthy older man. When the Americans fly her to Kandahar for successful reconstructive surgery, Zulaikha finally looks and feels normal until family tragedy strikes and she realizes “normal” isn’t everything. Drawing from personal experiences in Afghanistan, Reedy creates a multidimensional heroine who introspectively reflects on how to “be patient enough to forget all the ugliness and focus on . . . good things” in an oppressive culture where women are undervalued. An inside look at an ordinary Afghanistan family trying to survive in extraordinary times, it is both heart-wrenching and timely. (pronunciation guide, glossary, author’s note, notes on Persian poetry, recommended reading) (Fiction. 9-13)
Born with a cleft lip, Zulaikha struggles to feel worth in a society that values women by their marriage prospects: "What bride-price would Baba get for me? Maybe one Afghani?" Then, by chance, Zulaikha meets Meena, a former professor, who begins to teach her to read and write just as American soldiers arrive, bringing the chance for both more education and surgery to correct Zulaikha’s birth defect. Reedy based his debut on real people and places he encountered while serving with the National Guard in Afghanistan, and the extensive detail about Afghani customs gives the story the feel of a docu-novel while also creating a vivid sense of place and memorable characters. Reedy skillfully avoids tidy resolutions: the grim fate of Zulaikha’s sister, who is married to a much older man, offers a heartbreaking counterpoint to Zulaikha’s exciting new possibilities. A glossary of Dari phrases, an extensive author’s note, suggested-reading lists, and an introduction by Katherine Paterson complete this deeply moving view of a young girl caught between opportunity and tradition in contemporary Afghanistan.
When American soldiers first pull into An Daral, the Afghani village where thirteen-year-old Zulaikha lives, she has no idea that her life is about to change forever. Born with a severe cleft palate and profoundly crooked teeth, Zulaikha has lived her life under a constant barrage of verbal abuse: village boys call her “Donkeyface,” shopkeepers chase her out for fear that her appearance will scare away other customers, and her speech and her ability to eat and drink are impaired. Not long after the Americans’ arrival, an American medical officer offers Zulaikha a pro bono surgery to fix her disfigured mouth. After a few setbacks, both major and minor, Zulaikha is flown to an American base at Kandahar where the surgery is successfully performed. Based on actual events experienced by the author, a recently returned veteran of the war in Afghanistan, this powerful novel gains its impact from Zulaikha’s narration, which foregrounds her perspective on the events. The book wisely allows the focus to be more than merely the surgery, following Zulaikha afterwards as she quickly discovers that, while she is deeply grateful for her new face, it doesn’t guarantee happiness ever after.
The effect of the American forces’ presence is clearly complicated: Zulaikha is thankful for their intervention in her own life, but she’s also shocked and troubled by their insensitivity, ignorance, and cluelessness about social norms. Several side stories, most notably the wedding celebration of Zulaikha’s sister, Zeynab, and Zulaikha’s secret meetings with an older Afghani woman who is teaching her to read and write, add further depth to the storyline as well as abundant cultural information about contemporary Afghanistan. Readers will readily find themselves rooting for Zulaikha in this simply told yet thoughtful story. An author’s note, pronunciation guide, and list of recommended reading are included.
"I pulled my chador tighter around me against a cold breeze. Dark clouds had blown in and hovered over the eastern mountains. Winter was coming. It would rain soon… When I looked to the sky again, the rising sun burst through the cloud cover in splintering golden-white rays…A sign to tell me things would get better. That somehow life could be happy..."
Zulaikha has always been different. As an Afghan girl born with a cleft lip, she has come to accept the embarrassment of her cruel fate as "Donkeyface." But behind her deformity, she is a smart girl with incredible dreams of learning how to read and write. When American troops come to her small village, she is offered a gift she hasn’t even dreamed was possible, corrective surgery that will leave her just as beautiful as any other girl. But when her beloved sister’s marriage leads to a horrible tragedy, Zulaikha must choose for herself the future she knows is right. Zulaikha’s strong relationships in her realistically drawn family progressively develop throughout the novel. Even through recurring tragedy and pain, Zulaikha still rises courageous and ever hopeful as she faces the cultural challenges that come with a changing Afghanistan. The author’s skillful inclusion of cultural customs and the exploration of beautiful Afghan poetry lend depth to the story, highlighting the contrast of things both modern and ancient that resulting in a striking sense of place. This book made me cry. Through artful storytelling Reedy’s keen voice gives readers an accessible window into a different world. This powerful novel reflects his sensitive insight and incredible perception born of his personal experiences from his military service in Afghanistan. The detailed pronunciation guide and glossary is especially helpful. Endowed with the rare power to take the reader to a place they have never been before, this emotionally charged, groundbreaking novel illuminates life in a part of the world left too long in the dark. This intelligent and thoroughly enveloping story is an absolute must-read for middle grade students.
Note: Due to some graphic medical descriptions detailing the injuries of a burn victim and war-related violence, this book is best suited for mature middle-grade readers.
A children's book, written by a soldier about an Afghani girl, set in the recent past. That's a toughie. There are a lot of easier books out there to review too. Why aren't I writing one about the adorable little girl who wants to be Little Miss Apple Pie or the one about the cute dog that wants to find its home? Well, sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone, which I suspect is what author Trent Reedy wanted to do here. With an Introduction by Katherine Paterson and enough backmatter to sink a small dinghy, Reedy takes a chance on confronting the state of the people of Afghanistan without coming off as imperialist, judgmental, or a know-it-all. To my mind he succeeds, and the result is a book that carries a lot more complexity in its 272 pages than the first 120 or so would initially suggest. Bear with it then. There’s a lot to chew on here.
Zulaikha would stand out in any crowd. It’s not her fault, but born with jutting teeth and a cleft upper lip she finds herself on the receiving end of the taunts of the local boys, and sometimes even her own little brother. Then everything in her life seems to happen at once. She’s spotted by an American soldier, who with his fellows manages to convince their captain to have Zulaikha flown to a hospital for free surgery. At the same time she makes the acquaintance of a friend of her dead mother, a former professor who begins to teach her girl how to read. Top it all off with the upcoming surprise marriage of Zeynab, Zulaikha’s older sister, and things seem to be going well. Unfortunately, hopes have a way of becoming dashed, and in the midst of all this is a girl who must determine what it is she wants and what it is the people she cares about need.
I approach most realistic children’s fiction with a great deal of trepidation, particularly when it discusses topical information. The sad truth of children’s books is that they are perfect containers for didacticism, even if you did not mean for that to be the case when you begin. With that in mind I read the first 120 pages of the story warily. I wasn’t certain that I liked what I saw either. Seemed to me that this book was indeed showing an in-depth portrait of Afghanistan, beauty, warts, and all, while the Americans were these near saviors, picking a poor girl out of the crowd upon whom to bestow free surgery out of the goodness of their golden glorious hearts. Fortunately, by the time we got to page 120 we saw the flip side of the equation. Yes, the Americans are perky and western and what have you. They’re also doofuses. Sometimes. They sort of blunder about Afghanistan without any recognition of the cultural courtesies they’re supposed to engage in. They merrily serve their Muslim guests food made out of pigs, unaware of what they’re doing. At one point Zulaikha’s father grows increasingly angry with them for their distrust of common Afghan workers (watching builders at gunpoint so that none of them steal tools) as well as their conversational blunders. Don’t get me wrong. The Americans are generally seen as good blokes. But I was worried that this book was going to be one sweet love song to the American invasion, and it’s not that. It’s nuanced and folks are allowed to be both good and bad. Even the ones writing the book.
I still got nervous, though. I desperately did not want this to be a Poor Little Backwards Afghanistan story, so it’s interesting to watch Reedy at work. He draws very distinct lines between the Taliban and everyday Afghanis, which is important. A lot of kids (heck, a lot of adults) have a hard time realizing that citizens of Afghan and the Taliban are not one and the same. At the same time, he has to show the state women inhabit without pulling out any real judgments. The name of the game here is to show and not tell. I think we’re all familiar with the awful historical novels where a girl will randomly say something like “corsets restrict more than bodies . . . they restrict minds!” (I actually saw this in a book once) without any outside influences. Such moments are good for drama but are terribly unbelievable. If Zulaikha for one moment suddenly threw down a chadri and stomped on it, the moment would feel forced and false. So I was very impressed by the ending (which I won’t give away here) since it invoked books like Anne of Green Gables in terms of its happy, if complicated resolution.
It will be interesting to watch American kids read this title, though. For one thing, how will they react to the physical violence of women? Even “good” male characters in this book will occasionally hit their wives or children. We don’t see a lot of domestic violence in children’s books where the abuser is not only forgiven but also beloved. It’s a cultural reality that some would rather their kids not face, but at the same time it happens. And it seems to me that what Reedy wants more than anything here is for child readers to make up their own minds. I can see more than reader getting a little miffed that the neat and tidy comeuppances they’re accustomed to are no longer at play.
This brings up the question of the age of the readership too. The suggested age of 9-13 is probably dipping a bit low. Aside from the aforementioned domestic abuse there’s also sex. Not that any is ever viewed, but it’s alluded to once in a while. Now typically kids read into a book like this only as much as they themselves know. Only a few would understand why Zulaikha’s sister Zeynab blushes so much when receiving wedding night information. Fewer still will understand the significance of the wedding cloth stained with her sister’s blood (though I suspect a few might ask their parents about it). And then there’s the moment when Zeynab, in the midst of her marriage, tries to explain to her sister some of her difficulties with her husband. “Every night . . . He wants me to have a son, but I don’t know . . .” A little old for the readership but, again, a kid sees in that only as much as they necessarily know. Some will comprehend Zeynab’s meaning. Others will merrily skim through, oblivious.
The writing is strong, though sometimes a little predictable. The minute Zulaikha’s sister questioned the wisdom of bothering to educate women I thought, “Uh-oh. Nothing good’s gonna happen to her.” Sort of the case, I’m afraid. Reedy also spends a lot of time looking at the characters’ day-to-day lives. This is understandable since it gives you a better sense of everyday living, but it does have the unfortunate downside of feeling like there’s a bit of unnecessary padding here. The inclination is to skip all this description and get to the plot, though fortunately that instinct doesn’t have to kick in very often. Reedy’s book always keeps moving, never dies, and feels very much like a first novel. A good first novel, though. An interesting one.
Reedy’s Author’s Note brings up an essential point that is worth discussing and that I was very pleased to find him address right off the bat. After mentioning that he wrote this book because of another girl named Zulaikha with a cleft lip that he met while serving in Afghanistan between 2004-2005 he goes on to say that he made a promise to her in his head that he would write this book. He goes on, “Of course, another problem I had in keeping my promise is that I have never been a girl and I am not an Afghan. Many would say that stories about Afghan girls should best be told by Afghan girls. I agree completely. I would love nothing more than to read the story of the girl who we helped in her own words. However, the terrible reality is that by some estimates, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate.” He goes on to mention other statistics as well and then says that he has done his best to be respectful of the “culture and traditions of Afghanistan.” There was a bit of discussion last year about authenticity in children’s literature. Reedy himself brings up the point about whether or not it is ever okay to write about someone else’s life and experience if they are not your own. And what if the group you write about has, until now, remained largely silent in the American publishing world? Is it better that no one writes anything, or should someone try? Reedy compensates for what he is not by mentioning his advisors, his personal history in the region, the poetry used in the book (even going so far as to say which translations he used, for which I was VERY grateful) and then includes a recommended reading list about Afghanistan that includes books for both kids and teens as well as adults. You cannot say he has not covered his bases. If your objection is what he is and how that is not the same as the person he has taken the voice of (or given voice to?) then none of that will change your mind. For others, it gives the book a kind of legitimacy that the mere words upon the page would not have.
Disfigured girls have a way of cropping up in Middle Eastern children’s fiction these days. It might be very interesting to pair this book alongside the set in Palestine novel Where The Streets Had A Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Of course, in Abdel-Fattah’s book the heroine’s face was injured late in life and is easy enough to hide for the most part under make-up. The best pairing, however, would probably be with N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul, a book inspired in part by the author’s husband’s experience fleeing Soviet controlled Afghanistan. Words in the Dust is even more contemporary than those two novels, and it covers new ground. Zulaikha’s is a voice we’ve not heard in recent children’s books. Here’s the hope, then, that she is just the frontrunner of more good things to come. A strong debut.
On shelves now.
In his first novel, Reedy, a former soldier in Afghanistan, examines the restrictive experiences of contemporary Afghan girls through sympathetic 13-year-old narrator Zulaikha. Zulaikha's cleft palate makes her an object of ridicule for local merchants, bullies, and even her younger brother. Although Zulaikha's disability often relegates her to a serving and observing role, it allows her more freedom to leave her home than her 15-year-old sister, Zeynab, who will soon wed. Contact outside Zulaikha's family provides compelling insights for Zulaikha, such as her ad hoc education by Meena, a professor who knew and taught Zulaikha's bookish mother (a proclivity that led to her death), and with the American soldiers who offer to operate on her lip and teeth. "Even with the swelling, I looked almost normal. And I had the Americans, as ignorant and wasteful as they were, to thank." Within the family, the evolution of key relationships presents a nuanced look at family dynamics and Afghan culture. Though unsentimental and fraught with tragedy, Reedy's narrative offers hope and will go a long way toward helping readers understand the people behind the headlines. Ages 9–14. (Jan.)
Unfamiliar or exotic settings and novels about a dystopian future figure largely in current fiction for the teen and tween readers. Here are a few worthy of attention.
"Words in the Dust" by Trent Reedy (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 10 up). This is a splendid debut novel written by a soldier who learned to love and appreciate Afghanistan and its people. Zulaikha is a young girl with a cleft palate, which in her society makes her the subject of taunts and her stepmother's constant verbal abuse. Her domestic chores are endless, but through it all, she has her beautiful sister's love and friendship. But then her sister is married off as the third wife of a wealthy man nearly three times her age, and Zulaikha is lonelier than ever. When American soldiers happen to see her, they offer to arrange corrective surgery. She is thrilled. But when it's unexpectedly postponed, her disgusted father announces he can't afford to take more days off from work. Her hopes are crushed. Yet despite the despair and her sister's tragic end, there is the expectation, inshallah, that in time, all will be well. Reedy has given us a glimpse of Afghanistan that helps us understand the complex traditions of a totally different culture and the struggles for each individual to live with dignity.
People around the world have their own customs, their own rituals. Cultural differences determine ways of living, influenced by geography, history and politics.
New author Trent Reedy creates a foreign yet familiar world in his debut novel "Words in the Dust" (Arthur A. Levine Books, ages 9-12). A world away in rural Afghanistan, a girl named Zulaikha exhibits the kind of strength of spirit that is heroic in any culture.
Zulaikha lives in a small Afghani village with her father, his second wife, three brothers and a sister. Readers first meet Zulaikha when she arises one morning to the sound of the prayer call.
She strives to be a good daughter and faithfully answers the prayer call each morning. She dearly loves her beautiful older sister, Zeynab, and struggles to get along with her father's difficult second wife, Malehkah.
Then Mr. Reedy reveals what marks Zulaikha as different from the beautiful Zeynab: She has a cleft lip.
The simple surgery involved in repairing a cleft lip is taken for granted by most people in America. For Zulaikha, the idea of repairing her disfigurement is the stuff of fantasy.
While she lives her life with a certain grace and humility, her deformity is a source of obvious disgust and disdain for many people in her village. It is only in the sanctuary of her home that Zulaikha feels comfortable. And even there she must deal with Malehkah's constant scrutiny and disapproval.
Zulaikha's appearance is not the only thing that marks her as different. She possesses a strong will and a desire to learn.
Unfortunately, education for girls and women is not accepted in her small town. There is only one school -- and only boys are allowed to attend.
This makes life in rural Afghanistan particularly difficult for smart but shy and insecure Zulaikha. In her world, beauty and subservience to a father or husband are the most valued traits in women.
Intelligence is not only overlooked but often scorned. As her sister remarks, "What good are all those books to a woman with a good husband?"
The sudden arrival of American soldiers in her village sets off a chain of events that change not only Zulaikha's life, but also the lives of everyone around her.Flush with the prospect of business and wealth, Zulaikha's father begins the process of marrying off 15-year-old Zeynab. He loves his children but is very traditional in his views toward women and their roles in Afghani society.
The whole family is stunned to find out that the Americans have seen Zulaikha and wish to help her get the surgery that would repair her lip. Zulaikha's father is eager to help his daughter until he discovers that the soldier in command is a woman.Zulaikha watches as her strong-willed father struggles with the idea of men being subservient to a woman. She knows that regardless of how much she wants the surgery, this decision, as every other decision in her life, will ultimately be made by her father.
Mr. Reedy eloquently paints a picture of post-Taliban Afghanistan. People such as Zulaikha's father are torn. They are eager to profit from the arrival of American soldiers and embrace certain aspects of the Americans' views. But they are slow to disentangle themselves from the gender inequality that has formed the basis for Afghani social norms for so long.
Zulaikha's father seems to be almost physically affected by the female soldier's casual manner toward him and her authoritarian tone toward her male subordinates. He wonders aloud how such a military superpower such as the United States could have become such a dominant power with women in command.
Zulaikha's world is further shaken when she meets Meena, an old acquaintance of her mother's. She had been a professor before the rise of the Taliban.
Zulaikha has known only a world in which women are considered unequal to men. It is astounding that a woman had once taught in a prestigious university with female and male students.
Through Meena, Zulaikha learns of her mother's devotion to poetry. She feels connected to her lost mother through the beauty and power of language.
Meena agrees to act as Zulaikha's muallem, her teacher. Meena opens up the world of literature for Zulaikha and gives her a sense of self-worth.
In "Words in the Dust," Mr. Reedy provides readers with an intimate glance into Zulaikha's life. We feel the hardships of her daily life, and we cling to her hard-won moments of joy.
Zulaikha's voice rings true. Mr. Reedy deftly uses Dari, her language, to bring authenticity to the story. However, the author's perspective clearly shaped her story.
As a soldier on active duty in Afghanistan, Mr. Reedy no doubt formed strong opinions about Afghani culture and the role of the U.S. soldiers there. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to paint the soldiers' intentions as purely altruistic.Mr. Reedy portrays the soldiers as readily accepted by the people in the village. While there is little doubt that the arrival of soldiers has brought about positive changes in Afghanistan, readers should be aware that many have not been welcomed with open arms. Still, "Words in the Dust" is a beautifully written novel that introduces young readers to a fascinating culture. Zulaikha's strength of character helps to bridge the cultural gap and encourages readers to embrace and understand new and unfamiliar customs.
Laura Bandura is BLAST School Outreach, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Youth Services.