Deborah Ellis' first novel, Looking for X (2000), came from her work in an area of Toronto where poverty and despair are common. The narrative centres around Khyber, whose world begins to unravel when separation from her brothers threatens. Looking for X won the Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature (text) in 2001.Ellis' work in Afghanistan's refugee camps shaped the setting and plot for a trilogy of novels that begins with The Breadwinner (2001). An 11-year-old daughter of two academics, Parvana knows only life under the Taliban in a war-ravaged Kabul: "Bombs had been a part of Parvana's whole life... the bombs had taken away her father's health and their beautiful home." When her father, the family breadwinner, is arrested, Parvana cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy named Kaseem to provide for the family. The Breadwinner won the 2001 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award. Parvana's Journey follows Parvana's search for her mother and siblings after her father's death. Like her identity, she recognizes truth must be hidden too: "the truth could get her arrested or killed." Parvana draws strength from her memories of her father and his stories. Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature (text) and the 2003 Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Parvana's Journey won the 2003 Ruth Schwartz Award. Ellis completed the trilogy with Mud City (2003), presenting Shauzia, Parvana's best friend, who dreams of living in Paris while she endures life in a refugee camp as a storyteller. Shortlisted for the Ruth Schwartz Award for 2003, Mud City was selected as a New York Public Library Teen Age Read for 2003.
In her Cocalero novels, Deborah Ellis' fiction moves to the coca fields of Bolivia. With uncompromising detail, Ellis draws the lives of child slaves. I am a Taxi (2008) presents 12-year- old Diego and his family. In desperation, Diego leaves to work in the coca fields for drug lords. He is told "You are nothing. We could shoot you, dump you in the jungle, and by dawn your bones would be stripped clean. Nobody knows where you are and nobody will care." Diego escapes in Sacred Leaf (2009) and finds refuge at the Ricardo family farm, but the drug lords want their land and Diego becomes involved in the family's anti-government protests. Ellis' endings are never simple, but her heroes survive and remain loyal to their families.
Ellis' No Safe Place (2011) and No Ordinary Day (2012) are set in the slums of India, while Inside Out and Back Again (2011) is set in a struggling Saigon. All present young characters living chaotic lives while accepting family responsibilities and fighting poverty. In The Heaven Shop (2007), Malawi AIDS orphans are presented through the resolved and resilient Binti; Bifocal (2008), set in an urban Canadian high school, is an unsentimental presentation of how terrorism charges brought against an innocent student reveal previously unspoken racist attitudes.
Deborah Ellis is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, publishing oral histories of people struggling with their circumstances around the globe. Her first such book was Women of the Afghan War (2000). African children tell of their AIDS-affected lives in Our Stories Our Songs (2005), and young people speak from Palestine and Israel in Three Wishes (2006). Afghan refugee camp children speak in Kids in Kabul (2011). We Want You to Know (2011) records voices from suburban Canada, disclosing the costs of bullying. These works reveal an author who recognizes the value of young voices being heard.
Deborah Ellis has written over 20 books for a young adult audience. Her many international prizes include the 2004 Vicky Metcalf Award for Children's Literature, for an outstanding body of work. In 2006 Deborah Ellis was named to the Order of Ontario. She donates most of her royalties to various international charities, including UNICEF and Women for Women International.
Deborah Ellis continues to live and write in Toronto.