Set in Afghanistan after the Taliban have been driven out, Words in the Dust is the story of thirteen-year-old Zulaikha, born with a cleft palate and taunted with the nickname, Donkeyface. In order to keep food from falling from her mouth she tips her head back, eating like a bird—a heartbreaking detail. But Zulaikha has a quiet inner strength and comes from some strong stuff.
Zulaikha’s birth mother was killed by the Taliban for hiding books. Even though the Taliban is gone, life for women in Afghanistan is still brutal and heartbreaking. Zulaikha lives with a father focused on making a living for his family—sometimes to the detriment of his family, a severe stepmother, an older sister she adores, and several brothers who lead a very different life than their sisters. Zulaikha and her beautiful older sister, Zeynab sew the dress Zeynab will wear for her wedding, and Zulaikha wonders who will ever want to marry her.
When Zulaikha meets a professor who had taught her mother, Zulaikha learns Afghan poetry in secret and dreams of going to school one day: “I looked down at the words I’d written on the paper. Words that were at once a thousand years old and yet completely new. I held them to my chest, but did not feel foolish for doing so. Somehow I felt Muallem would understand. My mother could write and read this poem and more. I wanted to learn to do that too.”
Then American soldiers who had seen Zulaikha’s mouth come to find her, to bring her to a surgeon who could fix her cleft palate. But the journey isn’t an easy one as cultures clash and misunderstandings occur. The surgery is postponed.
Still, Zulaikha dreams of a fix for her mouth, happiness for her newly married sister, and an education for herself. Some things she will get and others will break her heart.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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