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Notes from a Children's Librarian: Deborah Ellis

Julie Booker explains how she became a convert of The Breadwinner series. 

Book Cover The Breadwinner

Our children's librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month. For a complete list of Deborah Ellis's books, check out her 49th Shelf Author Page


I have a confession: I used to often recommend the much-acclaimed Breadwinner trilogy without having actually read it. But now I can finally say I'm a true convert, and a huge fan of Deborah Ellis. Ellis is adept at writing about children who are in impossible situations and forced to make adult decisions. She's written more than 20 books (fiction and non-fiction), addressing issues faced by kids around the globe, donating more than a million dollars from the proceeds of her trilogy to worthy causes including Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Street Kids International, the Children in Crisis Fund of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) and UNICEF. All three books in the Breadwinner trilogy are listed for “mature readers” and have an author's note giving context to the stories. These are recommended for Grade 5+.

In the first book, The Breadwinner, 11-year-old Parvana's Kabul house has been bombed many times. Her family has gone from middle class to poverty, and since the Taliban, women cannot walk unattended and without wearing burqas. Her mother refuses to go out under such restriction but Parvana accompanies her father to the market each day where he reads and writes letters for those who can't. After he is arrested for having a British education, Parvana cuts her hair and acts as a boy to get food for her family. Along with her best friend, Shauzia, Parvana tries to make sense of the war and all its atrocities, including a job digging up human bones, a depressed mother, and the threat of land mines. In the end, her father is released, but her mother has already left Kabul to marry off Parvana's older sister, moving, unknowingly, to a more dangerous place.

Book Cover Parvana's Journey

In Parvana's Journey, after a year living in the refugee camps, Parvana's father dies. Parvana, now 13, living as a boy, strikes out on her own, claiming a few other orphans along the way—a baby, a boy with one leg, and together they beg and steal. They find a brief respite, away from the bombs, in the home of Leila, a little girl who retrieves food/supplies from peddlers blown up in mine fields and who cares for her dying grandmother who lives beneath a blanket in the corner of the room. Parvana and the children live as a family, regaining their health. And then one day they too are bombed, and forced to join other displaced and injured families. They make it safely to the refugee camp, only to watch Leila being blown up by a land mine.

Book Cover Mud City

Mud City is Shauzia's story. In the first book she parted ways with Parvana to pursue the fantasy of a peaceful life in France. Now she's living in a refugee camp in Peshewar. Desperate for work, she hooks up with a group of street-kids—trash-pickers and beggars—and ends up arrested. An ex-pat family comes to her rescue, but she oversteps their kindness and finds herself back in the camp. The story ends with Afghans filing into the already-over-capacity camp, afraid of an American retaliation for 9/11. Fourteen-year-old Shauzia has to decide if she'll continue to look out for herself or help her community. 

Book Cover My Name is Parvana

My Name is Parvana is the sequel to the trilogy and begins five years later, with Parvana held prisoner by American soldiers. They interrogate her about a bombed school where she worked, accusing her of terrorism but Parvana's not talking. Even though she's deprived of sleep and tortured with Donny Osmond music, she's content with her clean cell, food, a smuggled-in book and a few bits of writing paper. As the story unfolds, every other chapter flashes back to her life teaching at the girls' school, under constant death threats. When her mother is murdered, Parvana must leave with her posse of orphans. She returns to the bombed-out school to get her books and diary, which leads to her capture. In the end, it's Shauzia, her long-lost friend who helps with her release.

Book Cover Kids of Kabul

Kids of Kabul is a non-fiction book about post-Taliban Afghanistan. Short personal accounts by children ages 10–17 summarize a range of challenges faced by children in a country still at war. Ellis prefaces each interview by explaining subjects including violence against women, poverty, heroin addiction, autism, lack of work, girls forced into marriage with old men. The book presents a balanced overview of experiences from people all walks of life, with some hopeful stories: a boy on a cricket team, young teachers-in-training, a football team reclaiming a stadium where beheadings and public executions took place, a girl aiming to become a Hafiz (someone who memorizes the Qur'an), and the regrowth of libraries and art communities. Grade 4+

Book Cover I am a Taxi

The next two Cocaleros novels are appropriate for Grades 3 and up. In I Am a Taxi, twelve-year-old Diego has been living in a Bolivian women's prison with his mother and baby sister for four years. His parents were arrested when small packets of coca paste, used to make cocaine, were found under the seat of a trufti they were riding in. Diego is allowed to leave the prison to run errands, but he wants to be free, to be a man who can support his family. Mando, his best friend, also in prison, convinces him to take a lucrative job in the jungle for a few weeks. They find themselves involved with crazy drug lords, chewing on the coca leaf to endure the work of all-night mashing in a pit. Diego is considered dispensable by the drug lords, until he uses his math skills to outsmart them. There's an exciting climax with guns and a glossary at the back to explain terms.

Book Cover Sacred Leaf

In Sacred Leaf, the sequel, Diego is picking coca leaves with a local family, trying to earn money to return to his family in prison. When the army comes and confiscates the leaves and destroys the farm, Diego is arrested for attacking a soldier. Upon his release, Diego decides to help the Cocaleros block the highways in a nationwide protest. Based on a real-life general strike in the year 2000, tensions rise as Bolivia is shut down. The protesters on Diego's bridge are forced to choose between their cause and death.

Book Cover the Heaven SHop

The Heaven Shop is for Grade 6 and up. Thirteen-year-old Binti's life is tough. Having lost her mother to AIDS six years prior, she and her older siblings are still able to go to private schools, thanks to her dad's coffin-making business. Binti works on a local radio show that is broadcast all over Malawi, but when her father dies of AIDS, her life becomes strangely aligned with the tragic plot of the show. Binti and her siblings are sent to their uncle who takes their money and belongings and treats them like outcasts. When they run away, find themselves in different predicaments: her brother goes to jail; her sister, into prostitution; and Binti makes her way to her grandmother, who's looking after many AIDS-orphaned children. And here, Binti finds herself again. The summary at the back gives background information.

Book Cover No Ordinary Day

No Ordinary Day is a window into those struggling with leprosy, beautifully captured in the first-person voice of a young street orphan in North India. Valli doesn't know she has leprosy; the reader begins to suspect her condition when she is rejected by a prostitution ring. Despite her discoloured skin and numb feet, Valli is a playful trickster, a nuisance to those mean people who shoo her away or chase her out of the graveyard where she sleeps. She lives in the moment, stealing food and blankets then giving them away to those more needy. Her karma works for her when she meets a doctor who changes her life. This story has a hopeful and redemptive ending. Grade 4+

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.

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