Study Guide

The Breadwinner

By Deborah Ellis

The Breadwinner Introduction

Did you hear about Malala Yousafzai?

Malala was a teenager living in Pakistan under Taliban rule, when she was shot in the head by a Taliban soldier one day on her way home from school—all because they didn't like that she was an advocate for women's education. And we've got a hunch that Taliban probably wouldn't like Deborah Ellis either.

Deborah Ellis is from Canada, and is a counselor and writer; but most notably, she is an activist for women and for peace. In 1996, she visited Afghanistan to visit with women after hearing about their mistreatment under the Taliban, and during her visit, she heard of a girl who pretended to a boy in order to support her family.

Ellis decided to turn this story into a book.

The Breadwinner (2001) is about eleven-year-old Parvana, a girl who pretends she is a boy in order to earn money for her family while her father is in prison. But more generally, it's a book about the horrific living conditions of the Afghan people under Taliban rule, with a particular concern for the intensely cruel treatment of women.

Ellis interviewed children and refuges from Afghanistan to make this book as true to life as possible. It is the first in a series of four books about Parvana's life—followed by Parvana's Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana—and the series as a whole won both the Peter Pan Prize and the Middle East Book Award. In other words, Ellis hasn't just written a bunch of books about life in Afghanistan—she's done a very authentic job.

And while we're all for borrowing books from your local library (libraries are awesome), this is one book you just might want to purchase. You know why? Because Ellis donates proceeds from her books to help the people she writes about—and in the case of The Breadwinner series, this means she's donated over a million dollars to organizations dedicated to helping women and children in Afghanistan.

It's not very often that you can help change the world just by reading a book, and we're all about seizing that chance.

What is The Breadwinner About and Why Should I Care?

The Breadwinner takes us inside the mind of Parvana, an eleven-year-old Afghani girl who is living under the Taliban's control. All of Parvana's basic freedoms have been stripped away. We're talking no school, no identity, and definitely no funny YouTube videos—and then her dad is taken away too. And while Parvana learns all sort of lessons, in addition to encountering more hardships than any kid should, one of the most important things she realizes is that at least some members of the Taliban are just as vulnerable and sensitive as she is.

The thing about this eureka moment of Parvana's is that it's relevant to every single one of us, no matter where we live or what we think about other people. We all make assumptions from time to time, but this book serves up a powerful reminder that even dudes with the toughest, nastiest exteriors still may have some secret soft spots.

It's a book about good and evil, for sure, but it's also about the gray areas we all have inside us.

The Breadwinner Resources


Useful Phrases in Pashto
Wondering what it's like to speak Parvana's language? Wonder no more.

"Books can help us remember what we have in common"
That's the tagline for Deborah Ellis's website, Shmoopsters. Click on through to learn all about her and the books she's written.

Everything About Afghanistan
National Geographic's lowdown on Parvana's homeland.

Afghan Culture
Fast facts and pro tips in case you ever want to plan a trip.

PBS's Take on the Taliban
Timelines, background information, ideology, and more—this site's chockfull of information about the who, what, why, and how of the Taliban.

Recipe for Nan
Bored on a Friday night? Bake some nan—it's super delicious—and maybe send some our way while you're at it…

An Afghan Heroine
A slightly different version of Father's story about Malali.

Articles and Interviews

Q&A with Deborah Ellis
The author discusses her novel in the wake of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a young female advocate for women's education in Pakistan.

The Power of One Voice
Deborah Ellis discusses The Breadwinner and Three Wishes in this interview.

"Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part"
Parvana's story comes to life in this New York Times article about gender in Afghanistan. It's a fascinating read about a practice that very well may stretch back centuries.

"My First Afghan Burqa"
A New York Times reporter wears a burqa to understand the plight of Afghan women, and finds it's not exactly the experience she expected.


Educating Women in Afghanistan
This PBS video discusses one woman's dedication to educating women in Afghanistan and the power this education has in their lives. She totally reminds us of Mrs. Weera.

Ongoing War in Afghanistan
This documentary, produced by the Discovery Channel, gives background into the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and its history.

Malala Interview
From ABC news, Diane Sawyer interview Malala Yousafzai, a young girl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban on her way to school.


The Breadwinner Audiobook
Crank up the volume and rest your eyes.


Women in Burqas
In case you've been wondering what the big deal is with burqas, check out this picture.

Kabul Marketplace
Check out where Parvana lays her blanket each day.

Shalwar Kameez
Though there's no mention of embroidery on his, this is shalwar kameez reminds us of Father dressed for family story telling.