How sad it must make Deborah Ellis that this book still has ripped-from-the-headlines relevance. It's hard to imagine that any other children's book has cycled so quickly from tragedy, to hope, and back as this story about a girl's life under the Taliban.
Canadian activist Ellis traveled in 1997 to Pakistan to interview Afghani refugees. When The Breadwinner was published in Canada in 2000 and the United States in 2001, it was a horror story unfolding almost in real time, revelatory even to adults who followed the news, let alone middle-grade readers. (Imagine if Anne Frank's diary had been published and grown popular while the family was still in hiding.) And the book didn't feel like an antiwar tract, it felt like an beautifully observed novel with multi-dimensional characters.
The title character is Parvana, the preteen daughter of a Kabul couple who, when her father is arrested, will be the only person who can go forth to earn the family's nan, its bread. And she can do so only because she can disguise herself as a boy. The Taliban extremists have transformed Afghanistan into a place Parvana can barely recognize. Her educated mother and older sister are prisoners in their empty, waterless apartment because Taliban soldiers accost or beat unescorted women. They, in turn, cannot take Parvana's two younger siblings out-the toddler has never been outside. Parvana, at least until she grows breasts, can fetch water as a girl. But to enjoy any semblance of freedom, or to earn any meaningful wages, she must pretend to be a boy, specifically her family's dead son, Kaseem. The girl who swaps genders is a premise fairly shopworn in children's fiction, but Ellis never lets it seem clichéd. Among other surprises, Parvana finds a compatriot-the spirited Shauzia, who's been posing as a boy even longer than Parvana.
Their stories unfold in a deprived, chaotic world, so discovery is in some ways the least of their worries. (Their portrayals of boyness get little scrutiny because the Talibs' attention is focused on bullying and the ordinary citizens' focus is survival.) The girls' exploits-including the lucrative business of digging up and selling human bones from the graveyard and their unwitting effort to be concessionaires at what turns out to be a mass public behanding of accused thieves -are related with a matter-of-factness that makes the deprivation and injustice even more vivid.
The Taliban are now very much back in the news, which gives an almost unfathomable poignancy to Parvana's and Shauzia's parting pledge that they will meet 20 years hence in Paris. A decade after they made their pledge, half a decade after it had begun to seem something less than impossible, the situation in Afghanistan again is dire. One bright spot might be that a great many children in the West have read The Bread-winner and its two sequels and are growing into adults who perhaps won't be quick to ignore the plight of the next generation's Parvana and Shauzia.