I teach in an affluent suburb of New Jersey, and my students are fortunate enough to have parents who attend to their needs and wants in equal measure. As privileged as they are, my kids have an awareness that they are lucky, and that there are children nearby and all over the world who struggle daily for just the barest essentials to survive. My sixth graders are eager t o learn about the great wide world around them, and they are at a stage in their development where they are able to consider abstract issues of social justice, war and the struggle for peace, and social activism. Reading wonderful books that transport them into other lands and other lives becomes all the more important at this stage, I think, because our kids seem to be so receptive and eager to learn about their world.
I try to find books like these for my sixth graders, and sometimes (oh, happy day!) they find such books for me. That was the case with The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. Sarah, who had found this book prominently displayed at the town library and had checked it out herself, was completely enthralled with the story. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and soon many students were asking first for The Breadwinner, and the other books in the series. I purchased as many copies as I could get my hands on, and each made their way from student to the next, with many spirited conversations along the way.
The Breadwinner and its sequel Parvana’s Journey are set in war ravaged Afghanistan, where the Taliban have taken control of some areas and American soldiers battle against them on land and from the sky. Parvana’s family has lost everything, but they still have each other and together they manage to scrape by. Then Parvana’s father is taken away by the Taliban, and she must pretend to be a boy so that can continue to make a living for her family doing her father’s job as a letter writer and reader. But nothing stays constant in Afghanistan – and the first two books follow Parvana’s journey from one catastrophe to the next: she is separated from her family, rescues abandoned children, and moves from one area of devastation to another in search of her mother and sisters. The sights she sees and the situations she experiences are vividly described – and Parvana herself emerges as a strong young lady, who is both believable as well as admirable. Ellis is able to describe suffering with a type of unsentimental clarity that really appeals to my sixth graders – the details are just enough to allow for inferences and to provoke thinking.
Mud City is the story of Parvana’s best friend Shauzia, who fled Afghanistan for a better life elsewhere, only to find herself on her own and struggling to survive on the streets of Peshawar, Pakistan. Enduring harrowing experiences of her own, Shauzia is rescued by the Red Crescent…and then makes the brave decision to return with this humanitarian group to the country of her birth, and do what she can to help the thousands in need just across the border.
My Name is Parvana picks up the narrative some time later. Parvana has been captured by American soldiers who suspect her of being a terrorist. Parvana refuses to speak; she remembers the events of the past four years when she was reunited with what was left of her family and helped them to open a school. The Taliban threaten death and destruction unless the school closes down – and they carry through with their promise. But the American soldiers believe that Parvana was somehow connected to this event, and so Parvana sits alone in jail, until a dramatic bombing of the base forces Parvana to risk her life once again. At the end of this book, Parvana faces a choice – to leave Afghanistan for safety in France, or to stay and help those who don’t have such an option. When she makes the decision to stay, she says to her friend Shauzia, half in jest:
“So…more of the same then. More hunger, more fear and more work.”
And her friend responds, truthfully:
“This is Afghanistan… What do you want – a happy ending?”
For the children of Afghanistan, happy endings are few and far between.
It’s been important, I know, for my students to read about Parvana, Shauzia and the other wonderful Afghanistani characters that people Ellis’ books. Afghanistan seems so far away, and when my kids see stories about this country and the ongoing war that seems to continue without any end in sight, they often pause to focus only on our brave soldiers and the difficulties and sacrifices they make every day in the name of our country. When they think of the Afghani people, they often think about the Taliban, or the Afghan soldiers. The children of Afghanistan, the families whose lives have been torn apart over these years, and the landscape of the country itself have remained on the edges of their consciousness.
Ellis’ books opened up this world for my students. In the conversations that I overheard, and in our one on one reading conferences, this new knowledge was exciting to share and discuss. Students used Google maps to examine the Afghan terrain more closely, they investigated timelines to understand the many phases of the war in Afghanistan, and they began looking for connections between the themes explored in this series with themes in other historical fiction books they had read. They began to explore humanitarian organizations that are committed to assisting the Afghan people and their children in particular. They wanted to know how they could help in the building of schools, and in the purchasing of school supplies. The war in Afghanistan no longer seemed so far away and so abstract. When we learned that most of the royalties for Deborah Ellis’ bestselling books go to the organization “Canadian Women for Women of Afghanistan”, we checked out their website and learned about ways in which readers can become active in this humanitarian cause. They went beyond just reading about happenings far away to becoming engaged in matters that affect the world they live in. It was just an amazing journey in the power of reading for our class.
We are now on a book hunt for other authors like Deborah Ellis, and other series like The Breadwinner. Ellis herself has written the following books which are now on order for our classroom:
Set in Bolivia, these books follow the story of Diego who is trying to fend for himself among the dangers of the coca leaf trade when his father is imprisoned.
This is the story of twelve year old Valli, and her life picking coal in the coal town of Jharia, India.
This is the story of 15-year-old Abdul has made the long, dangerous journey from his war-torn home in Baghdad to a migrant community in Calais, France which seems just as fraught and terrifying.
This novel is set in Malawi, Africa and is the story of Binti and her siblings. Orphaned by AIDs, they must find a way to be reunited and build their lives together again.
We are really looking forward to the arrival of these books…and the new reading adventures they will inspire.
Tara Smith teaches sixth grade in Glen Rock, New Jersey. When she is not teaching, she can most often be found reading…and when she is not reading she is most likely on the hunt for new books to read. Tara blogs about her experiences teaching Reading Workshop, Writing Workshop and Social Studies at A Teaching Life.