The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner

4.3 116
by Deborah Ellis

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The Breadwinner brings to life an issue that has recently exploded in the international media — the reality of life under the Taliban. Young Parvana lives with her family in one room of a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul, Afghanistan. Because he has a foreign education, her father is arrested by the Taliban, the religious group that controls the country… See more details below

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The Breadwinner brings to life an issue that has recently exploded in the international media — the reality of life under the Taliban. Young Parvana lives with her family in one room of a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul, Afghanistan. Because he has a foreign education, her father is arrested by the Taliban, the religious group that controls the country. Since women cannot appear in public unless covered head to toe, or go to school, or work outside the home, the family becomes increasingly desperate until Parvana conceives a plan. She cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to earn money for her family. Parvana’s determination to survive is the force that drives this novel set against the backdrop of an intolerable situation brought about by war and religious fanaticism. Deborah Ellis spent several months talking with women and girls in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Russia. This suspenseful, timely novel is the result of those encounters. Royalties from the sale of The Breadwinner will go toward educating Afghan girls in Pakistani refugee camps. “...a potent portrait of life in contemporary Afghanistan, showing that powerful heroines can survive even in the most oppressive ... conditions.” — Booklist

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ellis (Looking for X) bases her contemporary novel on refugee stories about the oppressive rule of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Eleven-year-old Parvana must masquerade as a boy to gain access to the outside world and support her dwindling family. Parvana's brother was killed years earlier by a land mine explosion and, for much of the story, her father is imprisoned, leaving only her mother, older sister and two very young siblings. The Taliban laws require women to sheathe themselves fully and ban girls from attending school or going out unescorted; thus, Parvana's disguise provides her a measure of freedom and the means to support her family by providing a reading service for illiterates. There are some sympathetic moments, as when Parvana sees the effect on her mother when she wears her dead brother's clothes and realizes, while reading a letter for a recently widowed Taliban soldier, that even the enemy can have feelings. However, the story's tensions sometimes seem forced (e.g., Parvana's own fear of stepping on land mines). In addition, the narrative voice often feels removed "After the Soviets left, the people who had been shooting at the Soviets decided they wanted to keep shooting at something, so they shot at each other" taking on a tone more akin to a disquisition than compelling fiction. However, the topical issues introduced, coupled with this strong heroine, will make this novel of interest to many conscientious teens. Ages 10-12. (Apr.) FYI: All royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to Women for Women in Afghanistan, dedicated to the education of Afghan girls in refugee camps in Pakistan. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Proud of their Afghan heritage, eleven-year-old Parvana's family chose not to flee the country during the years of war and upheaval. With the advent of the Taliban, the family is forced to live in one room of a bombed-out building in Kabul. Here Parvana's mother and sister are virtual hostages, forbidden to go outside without the protection of a male. Parvana, who is small for her age, accompanies her disabled father to the marketplace where he reads and writes letters for others to support his family. When Taliban forces arrest him because of his foreign education, there is no male in the house to earn money or even to shop. Parvana dresses as a boy and risks her life to provide food. As the family plans to move to an area not yet under Taliban control, Parvana remains behind to try to find her father. Parvana's story is a compelling look at modern life in Afghanistan through the eyes of a child determined to survive. In her disguise, Parvana enjoys limited freedom despite her fear of being discovered and beaten by the Taliban. Her mother, a former journalist, and her sister, who was forced to leave school, have far fewer options and chafe under the regime. The oppressiveness of the Taliban government and the war-torn devastation of Afghanistan are clearly illustrated by Parvana's family situation. The realistic ending of the novel invites a sequel and offers some hope for Parvana's survival. Ellis is the author of Looking for X (Groundwood, 2000), which was nominated for a Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award. Glossary. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; JuniorHigh, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2000, Groundwood/Douglas & MacIntyre, 170p, . Ages 12 to 15. Reviewer: Judy Sasges SOURCE: VOYA, June 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 2)
Children's Literature
Based on stories told by Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan and Russia, The Breadwinner was written before most Americans had heard of the Taliban or knew where to put Afghanistan on a map. There is a map in the front of the book showing now-familiar cities like Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Parvana is the 11-year-old daughter of well-educated, prosperous parents who have gradually been forced into living in near poverty in a single dark room. When her father is arrested because he was educated overseas, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to be able to go out and earn money for food. She yearns for her "normal, boring life" sitting in a classroom and eating food that someone else has worked for¾an element that may generate discussion and appreciation among young American readers. There is danger, adventure and courage in Parvana's story, which depicts every horror we have heard about the Taliban and may make this story too harsh and graphic for some readers. In her job reading and writing letters for illiterate Afghanis, however, Parvana does meet one Talib who sheds a tear for his dead wife. "Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings?" she wondered. Her mother is part of the Afghani underground, writing forbidden magazines, holding forbidden classes for girls, wishing her family had left Afghanistan when it was still possible to do so. The story is easily and quickly read and the writing is adequate; more significantly, Breadwinner opens a dramatic window on human frailty and strength during a frightful period in the history of a country that is now a household word in America. 2001, Groundwood Books,
— Karen Leggett
In several passages of this novel for intermediate readers, eleven-year-old Parvana is surprised when a gift appears from nowhere on the blanket she has spread to sell family belongings in the market in Kabul, Afghanistan. One day there is a beautifully embroidered cloth, later a piece of candy, a handkerchief, a camel made of beads--all tossed by an unknown woman sequestered behind a blackened window. This book is itself such a gift: small, carefully made, and moving in its detail, simplicity, and grace. The Breadwinner addresses an issue that not only affects Afghanistan but is a cause for concern for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the U.S. State Department's group on International Women's Issues. Since 1994, when the Islamic Taliban gained political power in Afghanistan, women have been forbidden to leave their homes without wearing a burqa, a restrictive covering for the entire head and body, and without being accompanied by a mahram, a close male relative. Women and girls are banned from schools and from appearing on radio, television, or in public gatherings; windows are painted so that women cannot be seen from outside their homes. Deborah Ellis, a Toronto writer who is also a mental health counselor and women's rights and anti-war activist, visited Afghanistan to collect stories for Women of the Afghan War (Greenwood, 2000), an oral history for adults that relies on individual narratives to show the ways women's daily lives have been affected under Taliban rule. In The Breadwinner, Ellis builds on this wealth of information, distilling details to a single story and fusing it with the effective storytelling of her previous books for young readers:Looking for X (Groundwood, 2000) and Pick-Up Sticks (Groundwood, 2001), both of which feature strong female protagonists struggling in oppressive environments. What works in this novel, however, is not that it disguises a lesson in women's rights in the form of a story. In fact, one might read this book and be left with more questions than answers about the situation in Afghanistan. But the writing itself inspires the reader to care enough to want to learn more. We see Parvana as a typical middle child: competing with her sister for her parents' favor, resenting the easy life of the younger children, sulking a bit as she has to be prodded to fetch water. But as the situation becomes clearer, this typical childhood experience is rendered all the more horrifying. When her father is taken by authorities, Parvana must don her dead brother's clothes and try to earn a living for the family. She is called upon to do heroic acts-- digging for human bones that she can sell, witnessing a public hanging, and defying the laws that keep her mother and older sister at home--but she carries them out as a child would and offers her simple responses to the world that has changed around her. In her connections with Mrs. Weera (a former physical education teacher who comes to live with them when their mother is paralyzed with depression), with her friend Shauzia (a former classmate also disguised as a boy), and with the mysterious Window Woman, Parvana learns to rely on the strength of women's cooperation and combined power. She wonders, as the novel closes, about what will happen in twenty years: "Would she still be in Afghanistan? Would Afghanistan finally have peace? Would she go back to school, have a job, be married?" Ellis ends this novel hopefully, as the girl looks at the mountain her father has affectionately nicknamed Mount Parvana and feels that she is ready for the future, whatever it brings. She is not a real character, but she is fleshed out fully enough to make readers wonder where she is now, what is happening to the women behind the black windows and those who venture out in disguise. Ellis is donating all royalties from The Breadwinner to Women for Women in Afghanistan, an organization dedicated to educating Afghan girls in refugee camps in Pakistan. But her activism with this book goes beyond the financial returns it may provide for Afghan women: it takes on the significant issue of gender apartheid in Afghanistan by letting one individual's story be told with dignity, vivid detail, and a human voice. 2001, Groundwood, $15.95. Ages 10 to 12. Reviewer: Virginia Schaefer Carroll SOURCE: The Five Owls, September/October 2001 (Vol. 16, No. 1)
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-For 11-year-old Parvana and her family, survival in war-torn Afghanistan is difficult. The Taliban have decreed that women stay inside their homes, unless completely covered by a long, tentlike garment with a veil over the face. Girls can no longer go to school. Parvana's only relief is accompanying her father to the market where he works as a letter writer and sells family possessions. After he is arrested and taken away, Parvana becomes the breadwinner, dressing as a boy and taking over her father's job. One day, she recognizes a school friend, similarly disguised. The two team up to dig human bones to sell to make extra money, always fearful that their secret will be revealed and that they, too, will be imprisoned or worse. After Parvana's older sister, younger siblings, and mother leave for the north, Parvana learns that the town they went to has been taken over by the Taliban in a bloody battle. There seems to be no hope, until, unaccountably, her father appears, released from prison, and they decide to leave Kabul in search of the rest of their family. The author's sympathy with the women of Afghanistan is evident; her outrage at their treatment makes the single moment when Parvana sees a Talib as human, with feelings, stand out. The girl's courage and wit are admirable; she comes alive as a character far more than Kabul comes alive as a place. The book lacks the details about this region and culture that would help unfamiliar readers understand that world more clearly.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A great kids’ book . . . a graphic geopolitical brief that’s also a girl-power parable.” — Newsweek

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Product Details

Groundwood Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

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