American author Sylvia Whitman’s young adult novel, The Milk of Birds
(2013), is told through letters written between two teenage girls: K.C. Cannelli, a freshman in an American high school, and Nawra bint Ibrahim, a girl in a refugee camp in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
In Richmond, Virginia, K.C. is struggling in the wake of her parents' divorce. Her father has remarried, and meanwhile, K.C. lives with her mother and her older brother, Todd. In an attempt to raise K.C.'s grades and to find a way for her to be more engaged with the world, K.C.'s mother enlists her in a nonprofit called Save the Girls. Save the Girls matches American teens with young women in Darfur, setting them up as pen pals and facilitating the exchange of money from American families to those struggling in Darfur.
At first, the correspondence is mostly one-way. K.C.'s match, Nawra, sends her four letters before K.C. even thinks of responding. K.C. doesn't believe she's a very good writer. She is also an indifferent and disaffected American teenager who doesn't want to bother herself with the effort. Moreover, K.C., feeling a sense of powerlessness over Nawra's poor living situation, doesn't think a letter from a girl who "can't even pass the practice test in geography class" will help.
Meanwhile, the letters from Nawra paint an exceedingly depressing picture of life for the residents of Darfur. A paramilitary group known as the Janjaweed was hired by the Sudanese government to exterminate whole villages of farmers across the Darfur region. In fact, Nawra and her mother are the only survivors of a horrific massacre perpetrated by the Janjaweed in Nawra's home village, Umm Jamila. Currently, Nawra struggles to get by in a refugee camp for IDP, or Internally Displaced Persons. The conditions in the camp are terrible with poor sanitation and little to eat. One day, a man rapes Nawra, causing her to be pregnant and ruining her "purity." The men and women in the camp call her "spoiled meat." Nawra's mother is so traumatized by the experience of watching her neighbors and family members massacred that she is now mute. Nawra cannot read or write so she relies on her only friend in the camp, Adeeba, a refugee who comes from a relatively well-off family and is educated.
The book touches on a range of issues that affect African women like Nawra. For example, when she is raped, Nawra explains that many men in her country who contract AIDS are told that the disease can be cured by raping a virgin. As a result, rape is prevalent and HIV is further spread through the region. Other beliefs based either on religion or mere superstition result in brutal practices such as female circumcision.
What most affects K.C. is the way that both her family and Nawra's family are "broken" but for much different reasons. This allows K.C. to see a bit of herself in Nawra, but it also makes her see just how insignificant her own problems are compared to Nawra's. Instead of giving into her sense of powerlessness, K.C. starts The Darfur Club at her school. In addition to raising money through fundraisers, the Club gives her a sense of community and camaraderie through new friends like Emily and Parker, whom she has a crush on, and the group's faculty adviser, Mr. Nguyen.
In the end, K.C.'s letters give Nawra something to look forward to which helps her to persevere and survive, while Nawra's letters give K.C. some much-needed perspective on her life and problems. The title of the book comes from the saying, "Peace is the milk of birds." The quotation is at once aspirational, highlighted by the beauty of the turn of phrase but also depressingly unrealistic, since "the milk of birds" is ultimately a fantasy one can only hope for but which may never be achieved.