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.