Skip to Main Content

The Milk of Birds



About The Book

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.


The Milk of Birds Nawra

The khawaja moves down the line where Adeeba and I wait for water. We know her by her hat, pointed on top and tied beneath her chin, a wide roof shading her small, lined face. Adeeba says farmers in China wear such hats when they plant their rice in fields of water, if such a thing is possible. Sometimes I cannot tell when my friend is teasing me.

Except for the hat, this khawaja dresses like the other foreigners, in cotton pants and shirts that cover their shoulders but little of their arms, which turn red and then brown in the sun. She carries a board with papers under a biting clip. The evening we arrived at camp, she wrote down our names and villages and told us where to go.

“Her business is with girls,” Adeeba says.

She does not stop at every girl. She picks ones of marriage age. Some stare at the ground. Others turn away. A few mothers wave their arms as if the gumborr were swarming. Finally one girl leaves the line, her mother beside her, heading where the khawaja is pointing, toward the meeting place.

“They were less than an hour from filling their container at the tap stand,” Adeeba says. “It must be something important.”

I have the same thought. But I am not like my friend. Every thought that crosses my mind does not cross my lips.

I am also thinking that it is not a good thing to be picked out of a line.

Another girl leaves, the one-armed one who does not speak. She goes with the woman from her village who shares her shelter. A few girls walk alone. One turns around, but those who wait do not want to give her back her place in line. The ripple of their arguing travels down the line of people as if it were a rope cracked.

I close my eyes. These days I have a strange feeling in my body, and sometimes I am unsteady on my feet. Perhaps I am feeling the effects of bad water, which the khawaja say can make you sick.

When I open my eyes, the khawaja is moving in on us. She greets us in Arabic as rough as a heel. Again she asks our names and villages.

“El-Geneina?” she says to Adeeba. “The state capital?”

Adeeba says something in English, which makes the khawaja smile. As they talk, my friend shines. Then a cloud crosses her face, so I know she speaks of her father, the man of many words now silent in a government jail.

“A benefit walks from the United States of America,” the khawaja says in almost Arabic. “People send their care with money for girls’ resurrection.”

I look at Adeeba, who is swallowing her laugh. A giggle tugs so hard on its lead that it almost breaks free. God forgive us. I mean no disrespect. I scowl at my naughty friend.

“An American has come with a new plan called Save the Girls,” Adeeba says. “She is waiting in the khawaja shelter to explain. You must go and bring your mother with you.”

“You go,” I say. “I will collect our water.”

“They want girls from ravished villages,” Adeeba says.

“My mother will not go,” I say.

“Carry her,” Adeeba says. “What are a few more steps?”

My mother is sitting on the mat where I left her. She shows no surprise that Adeeba and I return so soon with nothing but more words from the khawaja. She does not protest when I lift her.

I carry my mother as I used to carry wounded animals from pasture, arms on one side, legs on the other, her body draped behind my neck and across my shoulders. She is not much heavier than a goat.

In the shelter, I slide my mother to the ground. We sit beside her, with a handful of girls and their relatives. The khawaja with the pointed hat is standing beside two women sitting in chairs at a table. One is a Sudanese and the other a khawaja with long brown hair in a single braid, like those I sometimes made in our horses’ tails. Silliness, said my father, God’s mercy upon him. That was until families began to pay for me to groom their horses for wedding parties.

The khawaja keeps looking at us and smiling. What does she see that I do not? She and her companion are young and beautiful, and I wonder that their husbands let them travel to this dirty place.

The Sudanese stands. She says her name is Noor. She lives in the capital, but she speaks some Zaghawa and even Fur because her grandparents came from Darfur. Everything she says in Arabic she braids with our languages.

She says that we should not feel alone. Many have heard of our suffering, and that is why we have food and plastic in this camp, a gift of the united nations of the world. But a group of women in America wants to do more for their sisters in Darfur.

Saida Noor pauses, and I look at my mother. Beneath the bandage, her foot has almost healed. So says the clinic nurse. But will my mother ever stand again?

The khawaja with the braid rises and says in proper Arabic, “My name is Julie.” Then she laughs and begins speaking in English, pausing so Saida Noor can translate. She thanks us for coming. She calls us the brave few who will make a path for others to follow.

“Sisters in America have heard of your troubles from newspapers and television,” she says, “although the government makes it difficult for journalists to enter the country and travel to Darfur to hear your stories.”

I squeeze Adeeba’s hand. Her father grew up in Darfur, but the government made it no easier on him. It’s better to have an ounce of good fortune than a ton of cleverness, my grandmother used to say, God’s mercy upon her.

“Some American women are rich and some are poor, but many have given of their money,” Saida Julie says. “Alms do not diminish wealth.”

“Do Americans have this saying?” I whisper to Adeeba.

“Noor added that,” Adeeba says. “I think. The English words move so fast, I cannot catch them all. Noor shapes them so they can fit our ears.”

“Giving money makes our sisters’ purses lighter but not their hearts,” Saida Julie says. “They want to hear your voices. They also want you to hear theirs. If you agree, Save the Girls will match each of you with a sister in America. For one year, you will exchange letters once a month.”

“I have never written words,” I whisper to Adeeba.

“Those who cannot write will find help from those who can,” Saida Julie says.

“I will be your scribe,” whispers Adeeba.

“University students in the capital will translate the letters. The ones from America will come with a small gift of money because our American sisters also know that empty stomachs have no ears.”

“That is Noor again,” Adeeba says.

“Every month each girl must sign the register for herself,” Saida Julie says, “and each girl must have a say in how the money is spent.”

“What my daughter needs is a husband,” an old woman calls out.

Saida Noor whispers with Saida Julie and then says, “If a girl marries, she must leave the program. Families who cannot live within these rules should not join.” She speaks without anger. “An honorable person’s promise is a debt.”

The crowd rustles, but only one girl leaves, an older brother pulling her arm. Saida Noor urges parents to listen to their girls. “When someone offers your daughter a sale in a sack, tell her to look inside before she pays her money. But you must remember when your daughter was a baby testing her legs. Sometimes she fell, but eventually she walked.

“At the end of the year, each girl will learn a trade so she can earn her own bread,” Saida Noor says.

Many women nod. One near us says, “Nothing scratches your skin like your own fingernail.”

•   •   •

Suddenly I remember my sister Meriem pleading for a green dress. The trader lifted it from his blanket by the shoulders. He turned it front to back to front again, fanning my sister’s longing as if it were an ember in the fire.

“Why do we always have to make our clothes?” Meriem asked.

“Because nothing scratches your skin like your own fingernail,” my mother said.

Does my mother remember that day? She is still staring into the distance. Meriem was born wanting more, so we came to think of her as twins, Meriem and her desire. Yet she was not ungrateful, so we often gave her more, to share in her delight. Still, my mother did not buy that dress.

I wish now she had.

•   •   •

The khawaja with the pointed hat calls us one by one. We leave my mother on the ground.

Saida Noor points to a line in the register book. “Can you write your name?” she asks.

I shake my head. I can read my name. My brother Abdullah taught me that much.

“I will write for her,” Adeeba says.

“You must let the thoughts be hers,” Saida Noor says. To me she says, “You must make your own mark in the book. You will make this mark every month when you collect your letter and your gift.”

I do not know what to draw. I cannot ask Adeeba, for she is talking to Saida Noor about her mother’s father, who was a professor at the university in the capital. Saida Julie holds out a pen. It is finer than any I have ever seen, with a pillow where it rests against my finger. I feel shy to make a mark in this great book. Although she does not speak, Saida Julie seems to listen to my thoughts. She nods and smiles and points to the page. I am not the first. One girl has drawn a broken stick, another a pea flower.

Quickly I sketch Cloudy’s face.

“A donkey?” Saida Noor asks.

I nod.

Adeeba tells the saidas, “My friend is an excellent herdswoman.”

I look down. The one who praises himself is a devil.

From a metal box, Saida Julie pulls out an envelope with English writing on the outside. She holds it out so I must take it, heavy in my palm. She looks at me as she speaks English, and Saida Noor translates. “Buy something of what you need,” she says, “but when it is gone, hold tight to the goodwill that came with it.”

Saida Noor gives Adeeba a sheet of paper on a board. Chained to it is another fine pen. She shows Adeeba the name of my sister in America, K. C. Cannelli.

We return beside my mother. Around us talk bubbles quietly, like cookpots on low fires. I sit in the path of my mother’s stare and show her the envelope fat with coins. Money makes ugly things look beautiful, my grandmother used to say. But my mother turns away.

“Count how much,” Adeeba says.

The coins clink as they fall against one another in my lap. K. C. Cannelli must be a rich widow with many sheep.

“What will you buy?” Adeeba asks.

We look at each other and answer in one voice. “Firewood!”


In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate

27 December 2007

Dear Madame K. C. Cannelli,

Peace be upon you. How are you? Are you strong? And your people?

When a tree leans, it will rest on its sister, we say. I do not have the words to tell you what your gift means. It is a great thing.

Your sister, Nawra

About The Author

Photograph by Anna Daniele, Red Portrait

Sylvia Whitman, a writer and educator, has published a slew of articles and a handful of children’s history books as well as a picture book, Under the Ramadan Moon. A folklore and mythology major in college, she has always liked proverbs, particularly this one: “A book is a garden carried in the pocket.” She lives with her husband and two kids in Arlington, Virginia. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (April 16, 2013)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781442446823
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99
  • Lexile ® 780L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"In alternating first-person accounts and letters, fifteen-year-old Nawra, an “internally displaced person” living in a camp in the Sudan, and K. C., a fourteen-year-old girl struggling with learning disabilities in Richmond, Virginia, find strength in their friendship and begin to work through their problems.... These two correspondents make readers long to learn more about them and will likely inspire more than one to follow the author’s appended note on ways to help alleviate suffering in the Sudan."

– The Horn Book, March/April 2013

“Nawra’s gentle dignity and steely resilience in the face of such horror is so delicately portrayed…the plight of the refugees will be eye-opening for many readers.”

– The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, May 2013

"Teen readers will be moved by the personal connections and by the stories behind news headlines."

– Booklist Online, April 22, 2013

* “In this debut, an American teen from Richmond, Va., and a Sudanese teen in Darfur exchange letters during 2008, transforming their very different lives.... Punctuated with Sudanese proverbs, Nawra’s letters reflect her temperate, resilient, positive personality, while K.C.’s brash, humorous style appropriately relies on American idioms. A timely, authentic, inspiring story of two unlikely pen pals whose global, snail-mail communication makes all the difference.”

– Kirkus Reviews, *STARRED REVIEW

“This powerful and important book has a lot to say to young people about seeing beyond their own struggles and opening their minds and hearts to others.”

– School Library Journal

"Readers will feel shocked, outraged and saddened, but like K.C., they’ll ultimately be moved to learn more about Sudan’s ongoing injustices and the people they affect."

– BookPage Online, May 2013

"Whitman’s passionate, important novel draws a deep and intimate picture of suffering in Darfur that is eased by a sisterhood of compassion."

– Richmond Times Dispatch, June 23, 2013

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Amelia Bloomer Project
  • Capital Choices Noteworthy Books for Children's and Teens (DC)
  • ILA Notable Books for a Global Society
  • Amelia Elizabeth Walden Finalist (NCTE/ALAN)
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images