The Breadwinner is the first book in Deborah Ellis’ four book series about 11 year-old-Parvana, her friends, and her family in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. The remarkable thing about this book is that it is a compelling story, that has moments of intensity and reality, yet never falters from being on about a 4th grade reading and comprehension level. The AR level is 4.5 and as a teacher I taught the book as a novel study to 4th graders, and now as a librarian I presented the book for my Jr. Book Club. In both cases, after completion, the children are arguing and fighting for the next books in the series, Parvana’s Journey, and then Mud City, and finally My Name is Parvana. It is not a tempting book on the shelf necessarily, but once you start, it is hard to put down.
The book gives readers a glimpse of how the Taliban changed the day-to-day lives of the Afghani people. Young Parvana starts out helping her father, a former History teacher, earn a meager living by reading and writing for the illiterate in the marketplace, and selling odds-and-ends that the family is willing to do without in order to survive. As a young girl she is allowed to accompany her father into the marketplace, her older sister and mother, however, have not left their home in a year and a half. When Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, the family is in need of a provider, a breadwinner, and with some of her deceased brother’s clothes, a haircut and some courage, young Parvana becomes Kaseem. She carries on her father’s work, digs up bones to earn more, and sells items from a tray to keep her family afloat. In the process she meets an old classmate, Shauzia, who is also disguised as a boy, an old gym teacher, Mrs. Weera, determined to fight back through disseminating journals and magazines, and other characters that bring the horrors and hope of the Afghan people to life.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that it doesn’t get too political, which would bog down the story and turn off young readers, and while it presents unfair imprisonment, stadium style punishments, death and pain, it does so in a way that evokes empathy not fear. It even at times finds a way to stay light-hearted and offer up hope as the reader sees the resilience and determination of these people.
“I’ve been thinking about starting up a little school here,” Mrs. Weera said to Parvana’s surprise. “A secret school, for a small number of girls, a few hours a week. you must attend. Parvana will let you know when.””What about the Taliban?” “The Taliban will not be invited.”
The book is intense at some moments, such as when the father is taken by the police, the girl’s nearly see prisoners having their hands chopped off, and the characters discuss landmines. But it is on a child’s level, too much description is not offered and for most 3rd graders and up, I think the book is a great dialogue starter about what some people have to endure in the world.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: (There are a lot of resources for this book)
Author’s website and study guide: http://deborahellis.com/teacher-resources/