The Milk of Birds
Nawra is a 15-year-old girl living in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan. She and her mother fled her village because it was invaded by the Janjaweed. She and several of her family members escaped from the village, but Nawra and her mother are the sole survivors when they arrive in a IDP (International Displaced Person’s) camp many miles from her village. Her mother has turned mute from the trauma, her village has been destroyed, and her future looks bleak.
"Sylvia Whitman, author of several children’s history books, as well as numerous articles, gives us a glimpse into the raw, harsh world of Sudanese refugees living in IDP camps...This is definitely a book worth reading."
K.C. (Katherine Cannelli) is 14 and lives in Richmond, VA with her mother and brother. Her parents are divorced, but she visits her father and her stepmother often. She doesn’t live in poverty, but her mother must work a full-time job in order to pay all the bills.
As a typical American teenager, K.C. is totally unaware of Darfur and its problems until a nonprofit organization called Save the Girls matches her up with Nawra. The purpose is for the two girls to write letters to each other every month for a year and share their life experiences. They become akin to Pen Pals, but K.C.’s letters to Nawra are accompanied by a monetary gift Nawra can spend on things she needs or wants. K.C.’s mother signed her up for the program. She also paid the money for the gifts.
These two girls from opposite sides of the world would seem to have nothing in common, and for the most part, that’s true. But there are a few similarities: they are about the same age, neither one lives with their father (Nawra’s father is dead; K.C.’s parents are divorced), and both of them have trouble with letters (Nawra is illiterate and must dictate her letters to a friend and K.C. is a terrible speller who employs a voice-activated computer program to help her write hers).
The girls get off to a slow start in terms of correspondence as Narwa faithfully sends her letters, but K.C. doesn’t keep up her end until she is forced to. After this reluctant start, the girls learn much about each other’s lives and cultures through their letters, making both of their lives richer for the experience.
The author covers a whole host of issues in this story. Female circumcision, rape, IDPs, AIDS, poverty and divorce are some of them. The title for the book comes from the saying that “Peace is the milk of birds.”
Sylvia Whitman, author of several children’s history books, as well as numerous articles, gives us a glimpse into the raw, harsh world of Sudanese refugees living in IDP camps. There’s not enough food or medical care for everyone there, but there is hope. Hope comes in the form of international aid workers who visit the camps and bring food, medical supplies and other necessities whenever possible. The workers also improve living conditions by providing fresh water, digging latrines, immunizing the people and providing some other medical services.
Although this is a work of fiction, it is based on fact. The author includes a list of organizations that provide much-needed aid to places such as Darfur. I was aware of the situation there as I have read other books on the subject, but this one gives it a different perspective. Not only does the author fictionalize the story, she alternates the text between the letters written by the two girls and narratives of what’s happening to them throughout the year. This is definitely a book worth reading.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on April 18, 2013