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.
Source: Galley copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover:
At first you might mistake this as yet another case where the child’s face on the jacket has been cut off or hidden in some way so as to be trendy. In this particular instance it’s a little more than that. Since Zulaikha’s cleft lip is key to the story, it would probably be a bad thing to put it prominently on the cover since that would take the book’s focus from Afghanistan and onto simply the heroine’s physical apearance. I’ve always been interested in how publishers chose to deal with disfigured heroines. Here are a couple examples that immediately come to mind:
Sort of a cheat. Whatever she’s covering up with that hand must be fairly small. I am grateful, though, that now that I’ve seen Exit Through the Gift Shop I can identify the Banksy image on wall in the background. This jacket for the same book did a better job of it:
Very clever how they split the page. I suppose Words in the Dust could have done something similar, but then it would have ended up looking like a whimsical title along the lines of Does My Head Look Big in This?
Now this is a book that I wasn’t aware of until Doret at The Happy Nappy Bookseller brought it up. Apparently it is also a book about a girl living in Afghanistan with a cleft lip. It’s a clever cover shot, and doesn’t look the least bit staged which suggests it may be a bit of photojournalism. Note too that the author, Rukhsana Khan is also the author of the picture book Big Red Lollipop. I’m sorry to have missed this one (it published with Groundwood Books in 2009).
These covers also occurred to me:
Hester has her entire face swathed, which is accurate to the story. A lot better than the American version, anyway:
It’s a bit difficult to see here, but trust me when I say she looks cute as a button on this jacket. One has to assume that the eighth of her face currently in shadow must be the scarred part. Maybe. All told, Words in the Dust does very well in comparison to these other books.
- Sara Lewis Holmes offers some thoughts on the title over at Read Write Believe.
First off, listen to Trent Reedy and his editor Cheryl Klein discuss the book in this two part series:
And this is one of the more impressive fan book trailers, particularly since they say it contains footage from their deployment in Afghanistan.