Just because a book doesn’t make it onto my Top 10 list doesn’t mean that it can’t be a temporary favorite. Ask any of my friends, and they’ll tell you that I can hardly go a week without rhapsodizing over one new title, or another. Or, in the case of this book, which fell into my eager hands at the beginning of 2013, I went several weeks, possibly longer, without letting up on my relentless championing of a story I was sure that everyone would love as much as I did. (Um, p.s. They did.)
I can’t say that this week’s favorite rises quite to the level of Code Name Verity or Out of the Easy, but that’s partly just because it’s a very different kind of book. In The Milk of Birds, pen pals K.C. and Nawra are living lives that are worlds apart. K.C. has her share of problems–low test scores and failing grades being among them–but her life in Suburbia USA is nothing compared to what Nawra faces as a refugee in Darfur. The girls’ letters, however, slowly bridge the cultural, economic, and national divides, and a remarkable friendship develops.
One of the things that makes this book a more unusual addition to my recent favorites list is that there’s not a lot of plot. The story is much more about character, and about the relationship, cultural understanding, and self-knowledge that emerges out of K.C.’s and Nawra’s correspondence. That could make a novel like this feel slow, but both these characters, and especially Nawra, whose experience is so “exotic” (that is, so far removed from my own), are compelling enough to carry the book forward at a decent pace. I was genuinely invested in both these teenagers–almost from the start. And my desire to see how their lives–and friendship–took shape is what propelled me forward through this novel’s 380-odd pages.
One other aspect of note. Books juxtaposing first world countries with third world countries, American teenagers with teenagers in developing nations, can be difficult to pull off. I’ve read enough of these types of stories that have been unsuccessful that I was on high alert for anything in this one that could register as a kind of savior complex, or condescending pity in place of genuine care and understanding. Kudos to Sylvia Whitman: I really feel like The Milk of Birds dials the first world/third world dynamic in perfectly. In fact, it is Nawra, with her wisdom and understanding, who is the real star of this book, and what K.C. (and we, the readers) feel for her, is respect. Her strength, in spite of the horrors she’s been through, forms the backbone of this amazing story.
I could say more, but that might not leave anything for the upcoming Pick of the Week featuring this newly-beloved title. Instead, I’ll leave you with the plea that my friends have heard far too often: Get this book. Read it. Love it. ASAP.