Words in the Dust

by Trent Reedy

Paperback, 2013





Arthur A. Levine Books (2013), Edition: Reissue, 272 pages


Zulaikha, a thirteen-year-old girl in Afghanistan, faces a series of frightening but exhilirating changes in her life as she defies her father and secretly meets with an old woman who teaches her to read, her older sister gets married, and American troops offer her surgery to fix her disfiguring cleft lip.

User reviews

LibraryThing member edspicer
Reedy, Trent. (2011). Words in the Dust. New York: Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-545-26125-8 (Hard Cover); $17.99.*

Purchase this book for middle school and high school libraries and your school library will have a book that will take readers into Afghanistan and give them a taste of Afghanistan culture and the intersection of this culture with the United States military (National Guard). The author’s note, reading lists, and glossary are almost enough by themselves to recommend this title. Much of our news concerns events in Afghanistan by our military and we have very few books that take students to this part of the world. The fact that this novel is based on Reedy’s own tour of duty and Reedy’s experience with a girl upon which he based his main character, Zulaikha, adds a poignancy that will suffuse readers. Zulaikha has cleft lip that is the source of constant teasing. Perhaps even worse is that she has a very traditional father with a very limited vision for the future of girls. He also has a new wife who has no regard for Zulaikha. In a culture that often values a woman’s ability to attract a worthy mate, Zulaikha worries about her future and struggles to maintain her own personal dignity. Fortunately she meets a professor, Meena, who has been stripped of her teaching responsibility by the Taliban. Meena exposes Zulaikha to the freedom of ideas, to the spirit of poetry, and to a much bigger, more interesting world. And then the American soldiers bring a doctor into the village and offer Zulaikha the chance to have her face surgically restored. Life suddenly teems with possibility, but as in real life, things are never as simple as they seem. An added bonus to this book is the touching introduction by Katherine Paterson.… (more)
LibraryThing member SheilaCornelisse
A vivid depiction of the lives and struggles of Afghani women. The author has based much of this tale on his true experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2005. Although thirteen-year-old Zulaika's story is fictional, the character and her surroundings are founded on real-life encounters.
I was totally riveted to this book. Definitely a recommended read. Note that there is some mature content that may be disturbing to preteen readers.… (more)
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
An excellent Young Adult book on the subject of Afghanistan.

I really enjoyed this book, even though I'm far from a Young Adult! It was tastefully written and the fact that the author was a soldier there made me feel gratified that people with such humanity are fighting the Afghan cause.

Zulaikha is a young Afghani girl, marked for life with a hair-lip and crooked teeth that earn her the cruel name of 'Donkeyface'.
She lives with her older sister, Zeynab, her 19 year old brother, Najib, and two younger brothers. Her own mother was killed by the Taliban and her father's second wife, Malehkah, now rules the household with a firm hand.
The Taliban era is behind them and newly arrived American soldiers are promising to build a school in the area.
The arrival of the soldiers brings very varied reactions from the members of the village, the young lads idolise them, young girls are warned away, and some of the villagers stand to gain financially from the future building work.
Amidst this framework, life goes on for Zulaikha's family as her sister prepares for her wedding.

This was well written, perfectly pitched for the target audience, and I would highly recommend it for all ages.
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LibraryThing member yearningtoread
I won this ARC copy of Words in the Dust from the Goodreads Firstreads giveaway program.

Zulaikha lives in modern Afghanistan, when the Taliban have been brought down and the Americans are still making progress in her country. She lives with her Baba (father), her Madar (mother…but not her birth mother), brothers and sister. Her father and older brother are welders and work hard to provide for the family. Zulaikha would live a very normal life…except for one thing. Her mouth. Her ugly, cleft lip, her twisted teeth, and her disfigured nose. But then the Americans show up, offering a free surgery to fix Zulaikha’s mouth. And her sister, Zeynab, might be married to a man of wealth and prestige. Could Zulaikha get the happy ending she and Zeynab had always dreamed about since their Madar-jan died?


I fell in love with this book from the opening words. Literally. ”I traced the letters in the dust with my finger, spelling out my name: Zulaikha“

But after that, the story blossoms into a whole world, the world of life in Afghanistan in the aftermath of a war, the world of an every-day-life Afghanistan family. The culture in this is so rich, the characters so well-developed, that you cannot help but believe that it is real.

This is Trent Reedy’s first novel, and he did a most excellent job. Telling from Zulaikha’s perspective could have been hard, but Reedy was talented enough to pull it off with incredibly smooth writing, characters that grow, a setting that is so different, and hardships that almost everyone can relate to.

Favorite character: It’s a tie between the sisters, Zulaikha and Zeynab. I loved Meena for her part in Zulaikha’s life; and even though I hated her guts, I thought the girls step-mother had a very important role.

Favorite aspects: The way Zulaikha interacts with her family…she is truly an amazing girl. And the way the reader watches Zulaikha grow is just beautiful… I honestly felt like I was growing with her, every step of the way. The poems were so beautiful and so was the way Zulaikha related to the characters in the poems.

One word to sum this book up: I would have to say a few words: sweet, heartbreaking, and lovely. Trent Reedy really has pulled off something amazing here and I can’t wait to see whose story he tells next! (This story was based off a girl named Zulaikha who the writer met while serving in Afghanistan who had a cleft lip. The Americans fixed it and he swore to her that he would tell her story… If that isn’t a touching story, I don’t know what is.)

Recommended to ages 12 and up.
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LibraryThing member melaniehope
Words in the Dust is the story of a young girl in Afghanistan who was born with a disfiguring cleft palate. Zulaikha's life is not easy. She is teased by the local village boys due to her appearance and dreams of looking normal like her pretty, older sister. She struggles to come to terms with her path in life. One day she meets an older woman, who begins to teach her to read and write and dream about a brighter future. When some American soldiers spot Zalaikha in the bazaar and say they can fix her lip for her, she really begins to believe in hope.
The author, Trent Reedy was inspired by a girl he met during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, and Zulaikha's character is based loosely on her experiences. This is a wonderful YA novel that is appropriate for grades 5 and up. I thought the writing was beautiful, the story was full of hope and possibilities. I found the story realistic and was also pleased that the ending was not a fairy tale one. It made it that much more believable. I found myself really liking the character of Zulaikha and wondering how the "real" Zulaikha is faring.
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LibraryThing member Kaberasturi
This book is the story of a girl native to Afghanistan whose life changes rapidly when American soldiers enter her town. New opportunities excite and terrify her but she works through these happenings with the expressive outlet of writing and her words in the sand. This book would be appropriate for grades 6 and up. I would use this book as a class read touching upon works issues, cultural differences and individual exploration. A writing project based on individual awareness would follow these central issues.… (more)
LibraryThing member jenlunny
This novel is inspired by a true story and written by an American soldier whose compassion for the plight of young women of Afghanistan is evident in every chapter he writes. Not only did a learn a lot about the Afghan culture, I came to care deeply for this motherless young girl who is brave enough to hope for a better tomorrow.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A beautifully written debut novel about a young Afghan girl courageously coping with heartbreaking loss and boldly embracing an uncertain future.
LibraryThing member ehopki7
For a juvenile fiction book, "Words in the Dust" touches on many difficult and complex topics. The book centers around Zulaikha, a young Afghani girl with a cleft lip. Throughout the book many life altering events happen to her, from meeting an older woman that offers to educate her, to her sister getting married suddenly at a much younger age that expected, to receiving the news that the American soldiers are willing to operate and fix her cleft lip for her. This story is written at an excellent pace that keeps the reader involved from beginning to end. One aspect of the book that I really liked was how believable the characters were; all of the characters were extremely human and had their good and bad sides, as well as their faults, exposed. I think that the main message of this story was to stay true to yourself and to find your strength from within.… (more)
LibraryThing member agrudzien
Zulaikha is growing up with two strikes against her - not only is she a female in Afghanistan (and therefore a second class citizen), but she was also born with a cleft lip. This deformity has defined her for her whole life...until one day the American soldiers come through town and offer to fix her smile. Around the same time, her sister is betrothed to a wealthy man. It seems as though the sisters' dreams have all finally come true. As their dreams take shape, both girls realize that life is not fair and your dreams may not give you what you wish them to.

This is a beautiful look at Afghan culture -- I really like how this is a story about Afghanistan but it was more about the people than the war. Good lessons for American readers to see that not everyone thinks our ideas are as great as we do. A few parts are quite graphic in the description so definitely for more mature readers. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. *
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LibraryThing member benuathanasia
I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry!
I cried...

This is an exceptionally heart-felt story, ripe with emotion, authentic character growth, and genuine perceptions. I liked that Americans were characterized as both heroes and villains, saviors and destroyers. The author does a wonderful job of not portraying the Afghani culture as "backwards," but it does not glorify it, unduly. He accepts it as it is, without casting any judgements. The main character is free to question Afghani traditions, but she does not rebel outside of reason, and she is critical of American culture as well while acknowledging Americans are capable of both good and bad. In all, this book is a complex look at society. I was so entranced I actually stuck around for the end where the author talks about his influences (something I never care to do).… (more)
LibraryThing member bookscantgetenough
This book was amazing. I got to see a side of the world that I, myself have never experienced. The main character Zulaikha, seemed to reach out to me and show me her world through her eyes. I have read A Thousand Splendid Sun, and this book help me understand it. The different customs between both cultures were interesting to see unfold. Also the way that some people view Americans, in the way that we are "horrible, bad. etc" but still want our help was interesting to read about. This book also made me think about what I should do with my life, I have more opportunities, I should take advantage of them.… (more)
LibraryThing member Salsabrarian
A rich, vivid story that transports readers to Afghanistan and its culture. Zulaikha's life is not easy especially with her cleft palate that makes her the subject of scorn and pity. But there's a dignity to her spirit as she copes with daily challenges such as her father's demanding second wife Mahlekah, beloved sister Zeynab's pending wedding, and a desire to learn to read and write like her late mother. Librarian note: A scene refers to Zeynab's blood-stained wedding cloth without elaboration other than "It is finished. Your sister is married."… (more)
LibraryThing member smheatherly2
This is a very real story about growing up Muslim. The main character not only is living in Afghanistan after the Taliban were just overrun, but she also has a cleft lip, which leads her to be mercilessly taunted. She is struggling to find her place in her family, and the world.
This was a very interesting book, that was not trying to sugar-coat this culture, and a book that I think is well worth the read.… (more)


Original language


Physical description

272 p.; 5.25 inches


0545261260 / 9780545261265


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