Words in the Dust, by Trent Reedy
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
My middle grade writer husband first recommended this book to me, and he told me I should read it because it's about a girl with a cleft lip.
As I've documented a few times on my other blog, I too had a cleft lip (and palate) because my mom had German measles when she was pregnant with me. I had a series of surgeries throughout childhood to correct both cleft lip and palate, in addition to ear tube surgeries (because of the frequent ear infections often associated with a cleft palate), oral surgery, and two jaw surgeries. I'm well aware of how lucky I was to be born when and where I was. A few years ago Mike and I made a Christmas donation to Interplast, an organization that corrects cleft lips in developing countries, to pay it forward.
But I've never read a book about a person with a cleft lip or palate, so of course I knew I must read this one. It's a middle grade novel, so written in a much simpler fashion than Cutting for Stone.
Zulaikah is a young Afghani girl who is taunted mercilessly by the neighborhood bullies because of her split lip and crooked teeth. (I, too, had horribly crooked teeth.) Her mother died during a Taliban raid, and her stepmother seems to dislike her. Her only consolation in life is her beloved sister, Zeynab. As frequent blog readers will know, I have a soft spot for books with positive sister relationships because of my own close relationship with my sister. When Zulaikah's sister is married off to a much-older man, her world seems to lose its meaning. But then the American military arranges for her cleft lip to be repaired, and the world seems brighter...but not for long. It's Afghanistan, and life is full of tragedies.
Even though I had my cleft lip and palate repaired as a young girl, I never felt as beautiful as other girls. I, too, was teased--either because of my scar or my crooked teeth, or because I was not like the other kids. Even now--at the age of 46--I sometimes catch children or even adults staring at my scar. Sometimes children ask me about it (which I would prefer over rude stares). That feeling of inadequacy and physical imperfection still haunts me when I think about it.
Zulaikah believes that the cleft lip surgery will make her beautiful like her sister, although she comes to realize that external beauty does not bring happiness.
Trent Reedy based this story on his own experiences as a National Guard soldier in Afghanistan (which you can read about on his web site). The book did not bring me to tears until I read the author's note, in which he shared his own interaction with an Afghani girl with a cleft lip.
One editorial error I noted: Zulaikah's plastic surgeon is named "Dr. Akamura," and he is described as a "compact Chinese man." However, Akamura is a Japanese name, not Chinese. (I wouldn't have known this myself before moving to Japan in my early 20s.)
In spite of her extremely difficult life, Zulaikah's savior comes in the form of a woman named Meena, who studied in a literary society with her mother. She finds hope in the form of ancient poetry, and she's able to imagine a better, more meaningful life for herself.
I highly recommend this book--for both young people and adults alike.