The Breadwinner


170 pages
ISBN 0-88899-416-8
DDC jC813'.54





Susannah D. Ketchum, a former teacher-librarian at the Bishop Strachan
School in Toronto, serves on the Southern Ontario Library Services


In Afghanistan, the Taliban have ordered all girls and women to stay
inside unless accompanied by a man of the family. Eleven-year-old
Parvana goes to the market every day with her father because he is not
well enough to make the trip by himself. After her father’s arrest
(his crime—having attended university in England), Parvana must cut
her hair, pretend to be a boy, and carry on her father’s letter
reading-and-writing business at the market to support the rest of the

Author Deborah Ellis has visited “Afghan refugee camps and has heard
many stories” from the people there. She tells Parvana’s story with
sympathy and vigor.

No matter how many news reports we see or hear, it is difficult for
Canadians to grasp conditions in Afghanistan. Fiction helps bridge the
gap. Parvana’s mother says, “You can’t be truly Afghan if you
don’t know someone who’s been in prison” and “The Taliban [has]
ordered all windows painted over with black paint so that no one [can]
see the women inside.” Indeed, women have no rights whatsoever. When
Parvana hears a woman screaming, she is told, “What goes on in a
man’s house is his own business.” Wisely, Ellis includes a number of
events in which Afghanistan men act with compassion. She also conveys a
sense of underlying beauty and poetry. As an old man in the market
remarks, “Afghans love beautiful things, but we have seen so much
ugliness, we sometimes forget how wonderful a thing like a flower is.”

The Breadwinner is not without flaws. Parvana is a fully realized,
engaging protagonist, but many of the other characters are rather flat.
As well, Ellis occasionally works too hard to include, in this one
novel, the many stories that she has heard. Fortunately, the plot moves
briskly and readers ages 10 and up will find The Breadwinner a
compelling book. Highly recommended.


Ellis, Deborah., “The Breadwinner,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 24, 2024,