The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner (2001) is the first book in a series of young adult novels set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan by writer and activist Deborah Ellis. It was followed by Parvana’s Journey (2002), Mud City (2003) and the final book, My Name is Parvana (2012). Inspired by Ellis’s interviews with Afghan women in refugee camps, the series begins with 11-year-old Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy to support her family after her father is arrested by the Taliban. It is a story of courage and empowerment and sheds light on the horrors of war, especially for the children caught in the crossfire. The Breadwinner was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award, while Parvana’s Journey was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Nora Twomey’s animated adaptation of The Breadwinner (2017) received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best animated feature, as well as four Canadian Screen Awards and numerous other honours.

Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis speaks at Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida, on 3 May 2011.

(courtesy Marie Coleman, flickr)

Background

In the 1990s, author and activist Deborah Ellis travelled to Pakistan to help people in Afghan refugee camps. During that time, she began to interview and record the stories of women in the camps. These stories became the basis and inspiration for The Breadwinner series. 

Plot Synopsis

The Breadwinner goes beyond the sensationalized media headlines and takes readers into war-torn, Taliban-run Afghanistan through the eyes of 11-year-old Parvana (see also Canada and the War in Afghanistan). Parvana and her family, which includes her 17-year-old sister, Nooria, and her two-year-old brother, Ali, live in a bombed-out one-room apartment in Kabul. Her parents are both academics who attended Oxford, but the Taliban’s strict regime forced them to give up their regular jobs — her mother was a writer and her father was a university professor. The family lost their house, most of their belongings and even their eldest son, Hossain, to the frequent bombings.

Parvana remembers their old life, including their “Western” toilet, but she cannot remember a time before the war: “Kabul had once been beautiful… For most of Parvana’s life, the city has been in ruins, and it was hard for her to imagine it another way.” Every day, Parvana accompanies her father to the marketplace where he sells his services as a reader and writer. One day, the Taliban arrests him for having a “foreign” education. Parvana and her family are devastated, but it soon becomes apparent that without an adult male to provide for them, they will not survive. Parvana steps up as the breadwinner, cutting her hair and disguising herself as a boy named Kaseem so she can earn money and buy food for her family.

She offers her reading and writing services in the marketplace, replacing her father in the same spot. One day, she runs into a tea boy, Shafiq, who turns out to be her old classmate, Shauzia, who is also disguised as a boy to support her family. Together, the girls find ways to earn more money as boys — from selling things in the busy marketplace to digging for bones in bombed-out graveyards.

By the end of the novel, Parvana is reunited with her father, only to realize that the rest of her family is in danger because the Taliban took over the area they were travelling to for her older sister’s wedding. The novel ends with Parvana and her father setting out to search for their family.


The Breadwinner Series

The second novel in the series, Parvana’s Journey (2002), follows Parvana’s search for her mother and siblings after her father’s death. The novel was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 2003; it also won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award (now the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award) that same year.

Mud City (2003), the third novel in the series, follows Parvana’s best friend, Shauzia, who dreams of living in Paris but instead must endure life as a storyteller in an Afghan refugee camp. The book was shortlisted for the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award in 2003 and was also selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age for 2003.

In 2012, Ellis published the long-awaited sequel and final book in The Breadwinner series. My Name is Parvana completes the trilogy about Parvana. It follows her at the age of 15 as she is held as a prisoner of war and suspected terrorist by American troops in Afghanistan. The book was shortlisted for the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award in 2014.

Awards and Honours

According to Brian Bethune of Maclean’s, The Breadwinner series is “one of the most famous trilogies in recent tween literature,” with royalties totalling close to CAD$2 million as of November 2017.  Ellis has donated these royalties to charities, such as the Canadian Women for Afghanistan and Street Kids International.  

The Breadwinner was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award in 2001. It won a Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award in 2004 and the Middle East Book Award in 2002.

In an interview with the New York Times, educational activist Malala Yousafzai praised the series as one that all girls should read: “I think it’s important for girls everywhere to learn how women are treated in some societies. But even though Parvana is treated as lesser than boys and men, she never feels that way. She believes in herself and is stronger to fight against hunger, fear and war. Girls like her are an inspiration. The Breadwinner reminds us how courageous and strong women are around the world.”

In 2006, Deborah Ellis was named to the Order of Ontario, and in 2017 she was appointed to the Order of Canada “for her acclaimed work as a young adult author and for her philanthropic support of many humanitarian causes.”


Adaptations

The film adaptation of The Breadwinner premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. It was directed by Nora Twomey (who also directed the Oscar-nominated film The Secret of Kells) and written by Anita Doron in collaboration with Deborah Ellis. The film was coproduced by WestEnd Films and Cartoon Saloon in association with Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s production company, Jolie Pas Productions.

Many of the film’s voice actors were of Afghan descent, including Saara Chaudry, the Canadian actor who provided the voice of Parvana. Chaudry won an ACTRA Award for best voice performance for her performance.

The film garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews and received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Animated Feature. It was also nominated for six Canadian Screen Awards and won four: best original score, best original song, best sound editing and best adapted screenplay. It also won the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Animated Feature, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Animation and three awards at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival, including both the jury award and audience award for Best Feature Film.