Monday, January 24, 2011

Behind the Book: WORDS IN THE DUST, + An Opportunity to Help Afghan Women

Sometimes I receive manuscripts that I don’t want to love. Something in the agent’s pitch or the query letter rubs me the wrong way; I know the genre or the subject matter will make it a terrible uphill climb to and in the marketplace; it is the least commercially appealing subject ever (incest, kitten torturers). I still read these manuscripts, of course, because quality writing will trump everything else, but even more than usual, I go in thinking, Convince me.

And though I’m almost ashamed to admit it now, one of these manuscripts was Words in the Dust. When I received the agent’s pitch letter in late September 2009, it told me that it was the story of a Muslim girl in modern-day Afghanistan, which DID sound exactly right for me and the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint; given our international focus, and the fact that I’d just published Sara Lewis Holmes’s Operation Yes (about Air Force kids with parents serving in Iraq and Afghanistan), it seemed like a good fit. But the letter then went on to explain that it was written by a guy from Iowa, with the decidedly un-Central Asian name of “Trent Reedy,” who had served in the National Guard in Afghanistan. I knew this agent had good taste and knew my tastes as well, that she wouldn’t be steering me wrong; but having long watched the kidlit authenticity wars with a fascinated and wary eye, I thought, Well, that just sounds like nine kinds of trouble, as I put the manuscript in the e-reader queue.

A couple weeks later, I handed my e-reader to Christina McTighe, a lovely young woman (and occasional commenter here) then working for me as an intern, and pointed to the manuscript onscreen. (I do look at every manuscript myself, but given the volume of manuscripts and the loneness of me, smart interns are enormously helpful for triage.) I said, “Would you take a look at this? I have my doubts about it, but let me know what you think.”

And she came back a few hours later and said, “You HAVE to read this. I love it. It’s really, really, really good.”

Huh, I thought. Who’da thunk? That was the most enthusiastic recommendation Christina had given anything in the six months she’d been interning with me; like the agent, she had good taste and knew my taste, and so that was two people who swore to the quality of this book. On the subway home that evening, as I was scrolling through the manuscripts on my e-reader, I saw the title and remembered her endorsement. So I clicked on the document. . . .

And from the very first page, it was so exact about the heat and light and dust in Afghanistan, so honest about the good and bad, the dreams and frailties, in every single one of its characters, that I fell in love with the book too. Its heroine and narrator is Zulaikha, a thirteen-year-old girl with a congenital cleft lip, which makes the mean boys in her village call her “Donkeyface.” Her stepmother, Malehkah, likewise seems terminally disgusted by her, and no one, Zulaikha included, believes they'll ever be able to find her a husband--the only way most Afghan women can leave their father's house. But Zulaikha has a good attitude despite these difficulties, and her inner strength, unfailing hope, and occasional (internal) sarcastic remark instantly endeared her to me. When American soldiers arrived in her village, I shared her distrust and fear; when they offered to provide surgery to fix her cleft lip, I felt her joy and wonder—but that was a road not unmarked by trouble, and I held my breath with her through each turn in her fortunes. There was plenty of other action in the book as well: Zulaikha’s expertly rendered shifting relationships with her brothers; the wedding of her beloved older sister, Zeynab; her learning to read, thanks to a woman in her village, and her amazement at finding her feelings expressed in Afghan poems written eight centuries before she was born . . . all the way through to the heartbreaking yet optimistic ending, with its hope for the future anchored in the pain of Zulaikha’s growth in the story.

With all that, perhaps the author’s most impressive accomplishment for me was his characterization of Zulaikha’s father, who loves his family and works with the Americans on construction projects, but who also takes it absolutely for granted that his wife and daughters should obey him unquestioningly, and that he has every right to hit them if he wants. I’m a twenty-first century feminist to the core, so this should have put me off completely, and yet I loved this man, the same way Zulaikha does, because I saw and understood all of him, both his tenderness and his firmness. And I loved the author and book, as little as I knew them then, for not pulling any punches in showing us who all these characters were: revealing both the good and the bad, and thus ending up at real. I was reading the manuscript at just the time President Obama was performing his 2009 review of our Afghanistan policy, and when I heard the president’s decision on NPR, my first thought was, “But what will happen to Zulaikha?” It took me a moment to remember she was mostly fictional (see the Books page on Trent’s website or this wonderful article in the Los Angeles Times for the remarkable true story behind the book); but my heart ached still for the real-life girls and women of Afghanistan, and for that reason as well as all the others, I knew I had to publish this.

In the weeks that followed, I put the machinery in motion to accomplish that. I talked to Arthur and our publisher and sales and marketing staff. I called the agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, who was kind enough to put me in touch with Trent himself. We had a long talk one evening, after he’d finished teaching high school English for the day; and his obvious humility and good heart, his understanding of the issues surrounding his writing this book, and his eagerness to do everything he possibly could to make the manuscript as strong and as culturally right as it could be, convinced me that this was an author and book worth fighting for. (Not to mention his passion, when I asked him what he thought we should do for Afghanistan now, and he paused and said, “Uh, how much time do you have?”) I was lucky enough to be Trent’s first choice for an editor too, and in mid-December, we concluded the deal for the book.

Given the timeliness of the Afghanistan setting, we decided we wanted to publish Words in the Dust as soon as we possibly could without sacrificing full fact-checking or quality. So I went straight from the submitted manuscript into line-editing, which I rarely do; and at the same time, Trent and I started looking for vetters and other resources to verify those aspects of the text that didn’t come from his personal experience in-country. We found two wonderful Afghan ladies now living in the U.S. who read the book for us and sent us their comments—one of them through the organization Women for Afghan Women, whose emphasis on educating and empowering Afghan women and children became an inspiration for us both. (Trent was a hero throughout this process, I want to add, working full-time as a teacher, play director, and prom sponsor, and yet still revising intensively.) Trent quoted a number of Afghan poems in the book, and rather than using the flowery, outdated Victorian translations that were in the public domain, I commissioned new versions from Roger Sedarat, a professor of creative writing and translation at Queens College, so the language would hold the same magic for modern English-language readers as it does for Zulaikha. And Katherine Paterson, who had long served as a mentor to Trent and an author idol for me, agreed to write an introduction, where she called the book a “beautiful and often heartbreaking tale.”

And now, many months later, Words in the Dust is in stores, with strong first reviews from Booklist (“deeply moving”), Publishers Weekly (“a nuanced look at family dynamics and Afghan culture”), Kirkus (“both heartwrenching and timely”), and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (“Readers will readily find themselves rooting for Zulaikha in this simply told yet thoughtful story”). Trent spoke at ALA Midwinter a couple weekends ago, and I’m told his talk about Afghanistan and the real Zulaikha moved some people to tears.

I’m going to be blunt here: For all this, and for everything else this book has going for it—its amazing quality and heart; the kind words from Katherine and Suzanne Fisher Staples; the enthusiasm of Scholastic’s sales, publicity, and marketing staff, which has truly thrown themselves behind it—it is still the kind of book that often has a hard row to hoe in the marketplace. Why? Well, an Afghan girl with a cleft lip is not an automatic sell in a book world filled with crash-bang adventure and paranormal hullabaloo. The airwaves are filled with anti-Muslim and anti-Afghanistan sentiment, which will close a certain segment of people off to Zulaikha before they even pick up the book (if they ever pick up a book); and if readers can’t absorb a few non-English words or deal with non-American or non-Christian customs, well, it would not be an easy or enjoyable read for them.

But I believe passionately that for those who do find the book and allow themselves to be open to it, Words in the Dust is a book they’ll love, and a book that can change hearts and minds in the very best way possible: forming a connection with someone different from you by hearing their story. And to get the word out about it, I’m making the following offer:

For every person who “Likes” the Words in the Dust page on Facebook, and/or retweets the link and hashtag below on Twitter, I will donate $1 of my own money to Women for Afghan Women, up to a maximum aggregate amount of $500. Trent is already donating ten percent of his proceeds from the book to the organization, up to a maximum aggregate amount of $10,000, and I’m delighted to be able to further help the cause. Also, this is money that I’m offering personally, on my own initiative; this effort hasn’t been suggested or sponsored by Trent or Scholastic in any way, and they are in no way liable for any matters related to this donation.

If you’d like to take part, please just click over to Facebook or Twitter and include the information below. (Remember, you must include the #WordsintheDust hashtag in Twitter to be counted—I don’t have any way to keep track of the mentions otherwise!)
  • The book’s Facebook page: Words in the Dust fan page (It has 20 fans at the time I'm posting this, for the record.)
  • The link to this post:
  • The Twitter link for retweeting: RT to donate $1 for Afghan women in honor of Trent Reedy’s WORDS IN THE DUST! #WordsintheDust
  • Trent’s website:
Thank you for your interest and participation, and I hope very much that you read and enjoy the book.

The book on IndieBound | Amazon | B&N | Borders | Powells


  1. I just finished reading WORDS IN THE DUST last night and it's a remarkable achievement. I think almost every book can make a legitimate claim to some kind of importance, even if it's a hugely subjective kind of importance, but I have no qualms saying WORDS IN THE DUST is an objectively important book. In a time when our nation is so preoccupied with polemical aggression, we NEED books like this, which are written on a foundation of empathy, understanding, history and love. Bravo to everyone involved, Trent most of all.

  2. How wonderful that Mr. Reedy had the talent and ability to craft his experience into a compelling, eye-opening read. I'll have to check this out.

  3. I am thrilled to read this - just reading the blog post had me all excited and riled up. Hello from a fellow worker in conflict zones and thank you, both to you and to Trent, for telling the stories that compel.

  4. Before I even finished reading this post, I opened the library website and put in a hold request for this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. I know I just said the same on Facebook, but I'm spreading the love. I adore this book and want to give it cocoa and a parade.

    And you can use that blurb if you want.

  6. I intend to read WORDS IN THE DUST very soon. In the meantime, you might like to know that it's being featured at the Harvard Book Store for the month of January. We in the children's department think it's an important book too!

  7. This book looks GREAT! I joined the FB group, tweeted and added it to my list on GoodReads. Now I think I'll pop over to a bookstore and order it!

  8. How much time do you have? Because this comment may be long--on serendipity, if nothing else.
    This morning, Cheryl Coupe, one of my CPs and an alum of Vermont College, posted a link to your blog about kindling. I read that, then scrolled further. I came upon your review of WORDS IN THE DUST. I haven't read the book--yet. But something about your passion for it brought tears to my eyes. Yes, it will be a hard sell because of its topic. But it sounds like a story that should be given as much oxygen as it can. I've gone to Facebook to "like" it. As soon as I read it, I will blog about it. I want to be part of the "kindling" for this book's ultimate success.

    And closer to home, my wife was born with a cleft lip and palate. That condition, just as much as the treatment of women is Afghanistan, is close to our hearts.

    Thank you.

  9. I really appreciate the blog since the first time do I saw it. Now they have reached another milestone which lead us to report about it, and I think it's a great new... as the content of the text.

  10. This book was definetly worth the read and I am truly amazed to see how other people can put themselves in other people shoes despite the fact where there are differences in gender, nationality, culture, religion, and environments. Good job Trent and I hope you will continue to travel and write many other books. I am pleased to tell you that you have a brand new fan....Keep Moving Forward!