June 1, 2011 |  by Dale Keiger

Navin K. Singh, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the School of Medicine, estimates he has operated on more than 500 children as part of volunteer medical missions to correct cleft palates, lips, and noses. Hoping to bolster the kids’—and their parents’—spirits and make them feel less different and alone, he and Johns Hopkins Hospital plastic surgery resident Sachin M. Shridharani have co-authored a slender book titled Special Smiles: The Journey of Three Amazing Children.

The book—illustrated by Jared Travnicek, Med ’09 (MA), and Jenny Wang, Med ’09 (MA)—follows three children as they have their lips or palates repaired by volunteer surgeons. Kim lives in Asia and is tired of being teased at school. Jamal is a musical African boy who asks his mother, “How come I can’t sing the same as everyone else?” In South America, Maya has difficulty swallowing properly. Their parents get them to “special smiles kids’ camp” by bicycle, bus, or canoe. After their procedures, the children go home to normal lives.

Singh and Shridharani pack a lot into their little book. For example, they took care to include a nurse, a dentist, and a surgeon from the kids’ home countries because those people often are instrumental in getting a child to a clinic for surgery. On a website created for the book, the authors explain, “The sense that someone from the Western world comes to solve their problems for them is palpable and can be condescending.” One additional clever touch: The South American girl, Maya, has a cleft palate, and so does her mom. The little girl tells her mother that maybe next year she can have the same surgery—provided she’s as brave as her daughter.