Parvana is not your typical eleven-year-old girl, but she would certainly like to be. She is living in Kabul—a city in Afghanistan—under Taliban rule, so she is surrounded by violence, oppression, and poverty… and before long, her family sees her as their only hope for survival. No pressure or anything though.
After Father is kidnapped and imprisoned by the Taliban, Mother has a great idea: they'll dress Parvana as a boy so she can walk about the marketplace freely. This way she can get food and earn some money for the family; it will be great. And while the entire family makes plans to turn Parvana into Kaseem, Parvana doesn't have a clue what they are talking about—she's just a kid, remember—but Parvana's family knows something that she doesn't. And that is that she is totally strong enough to handle the situation.
So they cut her hair, dress her up in her dead brother's clothes, and then send her out to fool the Taliban. To Parvana's surprise, her family is right—no one pays any attention to her as Kaseem. As she buys rice and tea for her family, she feels proud, thinking, "I can do this!" (6.72). Over time, Parvana comes to enjoy her marketplace outings, watching the people and feeling the "sun on her face" (7.4), which for an Afghan woman at this time is a dream come true (the Taliban requires them to wear burqas when they leave the house).
These trips to the marketplace, however, aren't about fresh air and sunshine. Parvana is supposed to be taking over Father's job as a letter-reader, and she's a little skittish—she's only eleven, after all—but Mother reminds her that she has "more education than most people in Afghanistan" (7.11), and she's knows Mother's right. So Parvana takes a deep breath and reads the letters with confidence, and as she does, she learns something in the process: these soldiers who have ruined her life and country are real people with emotions just like hers. She wonders:
Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings? (7.38)
This is a majorly insightful moment on Parvana's part—she recognizes the fundamental humanity in the very people who refuse to acknowledge hers—and it shows us how bright this young girl is. It's also a generous realization—it would be easy to write all members of the Taliban off after what they've done—which clues us into how fundamentally kind Parvana is.
While part of the reason Parvana gets sent to the market as Kaseem has to do with the fact that she's literally the only person in her family who can pass as a boy, we think another reason behind Mother's brilliant idea might be that she knows how smart and aware her daughter is—both of which seem like useful qualities while hanging around with the Taliban.
When Parvana runs into Shauzia in the marketplace she is relieved. Not only is Shauzia an acquaintance from school, but she's pretending to be a boy to help her family too. Finally, Parvana thinks, there are "other girls like her in Kabul!" (9.7). And while Shauzia isn't exactly like Parvana in plenty of ways—she's more adventurous and forces Parvana to take some risks (we're thinking about the graveyard in particular on this one)—she brings a bit of much-needed childhood back to Parvana's life.
Shauzia and Parvana laugh together, daydreaming about their futures and imagining themselves saving a princess while they "ride through Kabul in a cloud of dust" (13.43)—all while outwitting the Taliban, mind you. When they walk home someday, they talk about their classmates from school almost as though they were still allowed to go the way they used to. And, like true childhood friends, when it's time for them to go their separate ways, they refuse to say good-bye, and instead say, "so long for now" (15.75), agreeing to meet each other twenty years later in Paris.
But though Shauzia brings companionship and childish whimsy to Parvana's days, she isn't Parvana's only friend. Our main girl spends her mornings with a different friend—a.k.a. the Window Woman.
At first the Woman seems a bit creepy—she hides from sight and throws strange presents on Parvana's blanket—but Parvana only feels comforted by her presence. She looks forward to the little signs of life from the window, and the anticipation gets her through her days and keeps her focused on the positive. Again we can see friendship as helping Parvana tap into her childhood. The Woman drops presents down to her, impractical little gifts—treats, really—that speckle Parvana's days spent otherwise carrying the burden of being the sole provider for her family.
Before Parvana leaves Afghanistan, she plants the Woman flowers in the place where she usually set up her blanket, so that the Woman will have "something pretty to look at" (15.49) when she is gone.
As a gesture, it shows how kind and thoughtful Parvana is, and also how hopeful—she leaves the potential for beauty and growth as a gift to her mysterious friend. And even if the flowers don't grow, it won't matter because it seems the woman watches Parvana plant the seeds—when Parvana looks to the window to wave, she thinks she sees "someone wave back" (15.60).
Parvana's father tells her of the story of Malali, a girl who inspires the Afghans to rally in war and beat the British; Father tells Parvana she has that same courage. It isn't just a cool story, though—it serves as inspiration for Parvana to act courageously later on when all she really wants to do is crawl in a hole and hide forever. Malali reminds Parvana that she may be just a little girl, but she can do great things.
Parvana pretends she is Malali when she needs to feel brave, like when she goes with Mother to the prison to find Father, and when she rescues Homa from the Taliban. Parvana thinks:
I'm Malali, leading the troops though enemy territory. (14.27)
And in this way, Malali becomes like a second alter ego to Parvana. And just as she is able to do things as Kaseem that she couldn't do as Parvana—due to Taliban law—so too is she able to do things as Malali that she can't do as Parvana. Malali isn't just a story her dad told her; Malali is the best pep talk Parvana knows how to give herself. And this means, that though Parvana quakes with fear sometimes, she's also figured out how to pull herself out of it, which is pretty impressive for an eleven-year-old.
Parvana definitely rises to the occasion and becomes the family hero, but deep inside she just wants to be a normal kid. She was quite content playing with Maryam and fetching the water as needed, thankyouverymuch, and what she wants more than anything is to be bored in geography class and walk home from school with her girlfriends again. She says:
I just want to be an ordinary kid again […] I just want a normal, boring life. (12.36)
But for the good of the family, Parvana takes on Father's role, stepping into some pretty big shoes because she can, not because she wants to. This shift in her life only deepens the toll war takes on her though, and after seeing the prisoners' hands chopped off, she stays home for a bit because she doesn't "want to see anything ugly for a little while" (12.2). War has shown Parvana far more than she's ever wanted to see, and as the book ends—though we hope otherwise—it seems like Parvana's childhood is behind her.