Thunder Bay

Author of 'The Breadwinner' speaking in Thunder Bay on literature, social change

Canadian award-winning author, feminist and activist Deborah Ellis is speaking in Thunder Bay Friday about the power of literature to bring about social change.

'A little bit stronger, a little bit wiser': Deborah Ellis says kids' books must offer hope for better future

Deborah Ellis, the Canadian author of the award-winning children's book The Breadwinner is speaking in Thunder Bay on Friday May 10 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. She is the keynote speaker for the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop gala event on Saturday May 11. (Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop)

Canadian award-winning author, feminist and activist Deborah Ellis is speaking in Thunder Bay Friday about the power of literature to bring about social change.

Her children's novel The Breadwinner has sold over 2 million copies worldwide, been honoured internationally in Italy, Sweden, and the United States and recommended by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

The book tells the story of Parvana – a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime – who must disguise herself as boy in order to be able to earn money for her family, following her father's arrest and imprisonment.

What happens to children should be reflected in their books

'The Breadwinner', an award-winning novel by Canadian Deborah Ellis tells the story of a young girl in Afghanistan who must disguise herself as a boy in order to earn money for her family. Ellis is speaking about her books, including a collection of short stories called 'Sit', and about literature as an agent of change, on May 10 and May 11 in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Ellis said she was inspired to write the book after visiting women in Afghan refugee camps.

"I kept hearing the stories of what girls would have to do to survive in Afghanistan and keep their families from starving, which would be to disguise themselves as boys and go out into the city, earning money any way that they could. And when I heard that, I knew I wanted to share that with young people in Canada." 

Parents are sometimes taken aback by the stories Ellis chooses to tell – stories of refugee children, abused children, and those who are killed or injured in school shootings, or through other forms of violence.

"Occasionally I would get feedback from adults who say they don't think children should be reading about difficult issues like I write about," said Ellis.

"If I were a parent, maybe I'd have a different perspective but I think that whatever we do to children around the world should be reflected in their literature, otherwise we shouldn't do it. If we're too embarrassed to tell them about it in their books, then we shouldn't be doing it."

'Find the courage to speak out.. do something difficult'

Children, on the other hand, find great inspiration in the characters Ellis brings to life.

"Kids who have been on a refugee journey themselves, they can relate what went on in The Breadwinner to the things that happened in their own stories and with their own family, even if they didn't come from Afghanistan. For kids who haven't, they can relate it to things in their own life where they have to find courage to speak out, to stand with somebody, to do something difficult," she said.

"Some kids have used the books as starting places to think about how they want to interact with the world in general and that's pretty great because the world is made up by the decisions we make, and if they're already thinking about how can we make a kinder world, when they're children, then they'll grow up to continue that train of thought and make some progress."

One of the decisions Ellis has made, and that she believes is crucial to all children's literature, is the need to give hope to young readers and let them know the main character is "a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little bit more able to deal with whatever horrific things the adult world is going to throw at them."

Without hope 'what's the point?'

"It would be a crime for a writer to not have that in a book for young people because without it, what's the point of any of it?" Ellis asked.

"If we don't have a sense that things can get better, that we can do better, then why go to school? Why get up in the morning? We have to believe that we can do better than what we're doing and create a kinder world because without it we're lost."

The Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) is hosting Ellis's presentation Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. She will also be speaking Saturday night at the NOWW awards gala. Cathy Alex of CBC Thunder Bay is serving as the MC for both events.