Review: The Milk of Birds

I received this book for free from YA Books Central in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Milk of BirdsThe Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman
Published by Atheneum BFYR on April 16, 2013
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: YA Books Central

This timely, heartrending novel tells the moving story of a friendship between two girls: one an American teen, one a victim of the crisis in Darfur.

Know that there are many words behind the few on this paper...

Fifteen-year-old Nawra lives in Darfur, Sudan, in a camp for refugees displaced by the Janjaweed’s trail of murder and destruction. Nawra cannot read or write, but when a nonprofit organization called Save the Girls pairs her with an American donor, Nawra dictates her thank-you letters. Putting her experiences into words begins to free her from her devastating past—and to brighten the path to her future.

K. C. is an American teenager from Richmond, Virginia, who hates reading and writing—or anything that smacks of school. But as Nawra pours grief and joy into her letters, she inspires K. C. to see beyond her own struggles. And as K. C. opens her heart in her responses to Nawra, she becomes both a dedicated friend and a passionate activist for Darfur.

In this poetic tale of unlikely sisterhood, debut author Sylvia Whitman captures the friendship between two girls who teach each other compassion and share a remarkable bond that bridges two continents.

In The Milk of Birds, Sylvia Whitman touches on subject matter rarely seen in YA fiction, and I want to applaud her for that. This novel deals with tough subjects (divorce, genocide, rape, learning disorders, and more), but retains an overarching sense of hope. On closing the finishing page, I was sad that this our world, but also touched by the inspiring story within. Whitman handles all of this well, keeping the focus small, on the daily lives of these two girls, Nawra in Darfur and K.C. in Richmond.

Signed up to participate in the charity Save the Girls, K.C. initially wants none of it, too busy worrying about her parents’ divorce and her plummeting grades. In fact, K.C. refuses to respond to Nawra’s first few letters, until Save the Girls contacts her to find out why she’s not been sending letters, which has been making Nawra feel sad. K.C.’s mom offers to write the letters if need be, but K.C. finally steps up to the plate and does it herself, unable to stand the idea of her mom’s terrible imitation of her going out into the world.

I give you this small summary to explain what I liked best about The Milk of Birds. The scale of it and the portrayals are so honest. K.C. is an average girl, and, like most kids, the last thing she wants to do when she gets home from school is do more “homework,” which is how the pen pal thing feels to her at first. Watching K.C. slowly lose her reluctance to write the letters is so moving, especially when, by the time the year of correspondence comes to a close, K.C. keeps writing letters for her last package, unable to say goodbye.

If you’re hoping to learn a lot about the big picture in Darfur, The Milk of Birds isn’t the place to get it. Through Nawra, Whitman offers a view to the life of one girl. It’s not a broad perspective, but a narrow one. Nawra’s life has been just . . . there’s not really a word sufficient to describe the horrors she’s lived through. Whitman does not shy away from the harsh realities like female circumcision, rape, hunger, or murder. As expected, this is not a light read. That said, Whitman definitely doesn’t add in any more than is necessary; she tells it like it is, and that is shock enough.

Nawra is so strong in the face of her life that it is simply incredible. Despite everything, her tone in the letters is so sweet and cheery and hopeful. Though K.C.’s problems are nothing compared to Nawra’s, Nawra worries about K.C., and offers kind advice. The unselfishness Nawra shows is beautiful, as are the sayings she uses.

K.C. grows a lot in her correspondence with Nawra, but perhaps not as much as you would think. Her arc is rather more realistic than is traditional in fiction. At the end, K.C. is not utterly transfigured by her correspondence with Nawra, but she is a bit more confident, much more loving, and incredibly determined to do something to help Darfur. Still, K.C.’s focus all along has been on her own issues. K.C. loves Nawra and wants to help, but she doesn’t ever stop worrying about her crush on the boy she likes or her issues with her parents or her issues with learning. Again, this felt very believable, because, no matter how much perspective she has, she has to live her own life. Also, I love that Whitman touched on learning disorders, because that’s not something I’ve often seen in YA novels.

The only reason my rating isn’t higher is that The Milk of Birds moved very slowly for me. Much as I am impressed by the characters of Nawra and K.C., I didn’t ever connect with them on an emotional level, except, perhaps, at the very end. The more I think about The Milk of Birds, the more I like it, but it was a slow, tough read for me. At the same time, I am so very glad I read it, and I think that a lot of the difficult reads are important ones.

The Milk of Birds is a slow-moving, powerful read that’s heart-breakingly honest and realistic. Whitman deftly tackles more dark subjects than can usually be handled in a single book, but The Milk of Birds never strays into melodrama. The Milk of Birds is a read to inspire the reader to want to make a difference in the world, showing how even just a monthly letter can make an appreciable difference in someone else’s life.

Favorite Quote:

“I will let Adeeba rest her hand, but know that there are many words behind the few on this paper.”

5 responses to “Review: The Milk of Birds”

  1. So, wow. yeah.

    I went through this whole review thinking that I could really like this. I love how you mention that the author doesn’t go for shock factor and just tells it like it is. I love some blunt honesty in my books. But then at the end you talk about how slow it is, and I don’t do well with slow. My book ADD and all that jazz. But I think I would still give this a try as the subject matter might be enough to keep me turning the pages. Thanks for sharing, Christina. I had never heard of this and would probably had never have picked it up based on the name and the cover.

    • Christina says:

      I love the cover, but, yeah, it’s sort of lit fic looking. Haha. This one did go slowly for me, but I think it was worth it in the end. Took some time to really get there.

  2. Lyn Kaye says:

    This soundsso beautiful. Penpal books are a secret joy of mine, and this one sounds like it hold a lot of promise.

  3. This sounds really good and now I’m wondering why I didn’t request it when it was on Edelweiss.

    I love that this book deals with some shocking subjects – especially when you think about what is going on in Darfur – without going in for the shock factor. There are many ways that dealing with genocide could go very wrong, but I think that keeping it small scale actually helps make it real for the reader. If an author can create characters that speak to the reader, it’s more likely that the message will reach him/her.

    I’m definitely going to have to look for this one at my library.

  4. Renae M. says:

    Oooo. This looks good! Epistolary-type books aren’t my favorite as a general rule, but the way you describe the author’s treatment of the story sounds really great. Both sides of the story sound well-done, and it seems like both girls get dealt with respectfully, which in this kind of situation is important. I also like the lack of unbelievable fairytale-ness that you mention.

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