• It’s the birth date of Thornton W. Burgess (1874–1965), Mother West Wind’s Neighbors, Hugh Lofting (1886–1947) Doctor Dolittle, and Hendrik Willem van Loon (1882–1944) The Story of Mankind.
  • The Human Be-In, takes place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967, the prelude to “the Summer of Love.” Read The Young Oxford Book of the Human Being by David Glover.
  • In 1972, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark ascends the throne, the first Queen of Denmark since 1412 and the first Danish monarch not named Frederick or Christian since 1513.

Many make reading resolutions for the New Year, and I do as well for the Almanac. Last year, a consulting project I worked on made me painfully aware of how few of our best books for children focus on other than English-speaking countries. So this year I intend to write more Almanac entries with an international focus, such as Little White Duck from last month.

The best book to start out my resolution is Deborah Ellis’s extraordinary novel The Breadwinner, first published in 2001. For this book that is used in fifth through seventh grade classrooms and has been translated into twenty-five languages, Ellis focuses on the plight of women in Afghanistan during the regime of the Taliban. Had Ellis created a polemic about this topic, the book would be long out of print. But she brings to life one girl, Parvana, and her family in a way that haunts readers long after they have closed the book’s cover.

Eleven-year-old Parvana had to leave her sixth grade class because women were ordered to stay inside their homes by the Taliban. She lives in one cramped room with her father, mother, older sister, Nooria, younger sister, Maryam, and a two-year-old brother. Her father, who was wounded by a bomb while teaching high school, now reads letters for people in the marketplace. Since so few Afghans are literate, he cobbles together enough money to keep his family fed in this manner. Parvana’s family has known better days—but the destruction from war along with the repression of the Taliban has left them with only a meager existence.

But when her father gets arrested for no apparent reason, that existence is threatened. In an act of desperation, the family cuts off Parvana’s hair, dresses her like a boy, and sends her into the streets alone to find a way to feed the family. Fortunately she meets another young girl engaged in the same scheme. In one haunting chapter the two girls go to the graveyard to dig up and sell bones to make money.

While a story about family at its heart, The Breadwinner brings contemporary headlines to life. Parvana seems like every young girl in her determination and drive. Yet she is caught in tragic circumstances. For those who fall in love with this character, Ellis continues her sage in Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name Is Parvana, published in 2012. Because of the content, the books work extremely well when young readers can discuss the story in a group setting. No matter how the books are read, however, these novels give readers perspective on what’s important in life. And they remind American readers to be grateful for what they have.

Here’s a passage from The Breadwinner:

Both of Parvana’s parents had come from old respected Afghan families. With their education, they had earned high salaries. They had had a big house with a courtyard, a couple of servants, a television set, a refrigerator, a cat. Nooria had had her own room. Parvana had shared a room with her little sister, Maryam. Maryam chattered a lot, but she thought Parvana was wonderful. It had certainly been wonderful to get away from Nooria sometimes.

That house had been destroyed by a bomb. The family had moved several times since then. Each time they had moved to a smaller place. Every time their house was bombed, they lost more of their things. With each bomb, they got poorer. Now they lived together in one small room.


Originally posted January 14, 2013. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, Family, History, Social Conscience
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Breadwinner


  1. Star says:

    This book is so apt right now. It makes me think of Malala and her fight for girls’ education in the Taliban-controlled part of Pakistan that she called home. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I will add this to my reading list!!

  2. And I just now received an email from Deborah’s US publisher (Groundwood Books/Perseus) introducing her new website with downloadable teachers’ guides for all the Breadwinner books: http://perseusbookspromos.com/books/deborahellis.com/

    What very good timing, indeed!
    **Katy Manck
    Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at
    Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove

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