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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

World Peace Forum: For the sake of the children

by Murray Corren

Following her riveting presentation at the World Peace Forum in June, I had the honour of interviewing children’s literature author, Deborah Ellis. "Deborah is that all too rare artist whose deeply rooted sense of social justice is manifest in writing that is lively, lucid, and highly entertaining. In settings as diverse as Afghanistan, Malawi, Bolivia, medieval Paris, and Regent Park in Toronto, her novels chronicle the lives of youngsters faced with enormous challenges," was the verdict of the Vickey Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature jury.

This extraordinary writer is a long-time women’s rights and anti-war activist who has authored socially engaging novels about children living in environments of violence, conflict, and earth-shattering calamities. However, anyone reading her work will also be deeply touched by the extraordinary and uplifting acts of courage by her child-heroes.

Of herself, Deborah says, "My books reflect the heroism of people around the world who are struggling for decent lives. It has been a real privilege for me to sit with people in many parts of the world and learn how their lives have been drastically altered by war or disease, and how they try to remain kind in spite of it all. This has taught me how fundamentally alike we all are."

All the royalties from many of her books, translated into numerous languages, are donated to the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, to Street Kids International, and to UNICEF. When I mention these generous acts of kindness, Deborah responds with, "Oh, it’s nothing." To date, The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey alone have raised over $500,000 to support the women and girls of Afghanistan.

Winner of numerous children’s literature awards, Deborah Ellis works as a mental health counselor in a group home for women in Simcoe, Ontario.

How did you become involved in anti-bomb politics and in feminism?
I came of age in l978, when the world was about to blow itself up in an atomic war. I write about what interests me, which is how people move about in a world of cruelty, and find some measure of kindness in that cruelty.

When I was in high school in Paris, Ontario, some local volunteers involved in the antibomb movement came and gave a talk and I became interested in it and became involved. Unfortunately, the guys who were there were very chauvinistic. Various organizations were connected to the antibomb political movement, one of them being a feminist organization. It was then that I became interested in feminism.

Tell me more about those measures of kindness you have witnessed.
I have seen so many acts of kindness, I hardly know where to begin. I have seen people in the Afghan refugee camps, who have lost their own children through war or illness, take in other children who have lost their parents and made them their own.

You spent time in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan prior to writing the "Breadwinner" trilogy. What were the circumstances that brought you to do that?
I and some others were doing solidarity work with Afghan women after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in September l996. I went over to the camps to collect their stories to share with others, and heard about girls masquerading as boys in order to support their families.

Who were some of the people you met?
I met former teachers, principals, and doctors working in secret trying to get medical help to people inside Afghanistan. I met a woman who had been married at nine years old and was widowed at 10 when her husband was killed in the war. I met women who smuggled guns for the Mujahadine into the country to fight the Russians.

I’d like to turn now to the "Breadwinner" trilogy. The books portray events that some might say are too disturbing for children to read about and could take away their innocence. What do you say to those concerns?
The children I’ve met who have read my books, or lived in the situations I write about, are capable of knowing the truth of the world as it is presented to them, and, at the same time, believing in make-believe, in dreams, and in decency.

What message would you like children to get from those three books?
We often carry with us the books we read as children. If the kids who read my books remember them when they get to be decision makers, and their government says its time to go to war, hopefully they’ll remember that there are real people under those bombs, people like Parvana, and will think seriously before letting their government get away with killing them in their name.

The Canadian government recently announced an increased expenditure of $17 billion on the military. How else do you think that money might have been spent?
A teacher in Afghanistan earns roughly $750 a year. Seventeen billion dollars would hire a lot of teachers, build a lot of schools, put a lot of people back to work, give a lot of people a sense of future.

There are Canadians who think we should not be in Afghanistan in combat mode, that our soldiers are being injured or killed. The theme of the World Peace Forum is the futility of war and how conflict does not solve problems. What would you say to those people?
We should not be in Afghanistan in combat. What invariably happens is that innocent people will be in the way of the fighting and will be hurt or killed. War not only destroys buildings, it also destroys the social fabric of a people and leaves them with no way of putting their lives back together. What we should be doing as Canadians is bringing a whole other set of skills—building schools, hospitals, roads, etc.—setting up an infrastructure whereby people affected by the war can begin to re-establish a functioning social structure that gives them peaceful alternatives to war. For instance, I think it’s in the Congo where a very exciting program is happening, where people are being given bicycles in exchange for their guns and are being shown lots of different ways they can use those bicycles to make a living.

Apart from the "Breadwinner" trilogy, what other books have you written?
Other books of mine are: The Heaven Shop, a novel about children dealing with AIDS in Malawi, Our Stories, Our Songs, interviews I did with kids affected by AIDS in Malawi and Zambia, Three Wishes, Children of Israel and Palestine Speak, Interviews I did with kids in Israel and Palestine, A Company of Fools, a novel about the plague in the Middle Ages is my favourite because it was the most fun to write, Looking for X, a novel and some books in the "Our Canadian Girl Series."

Deborah, thank you.

For any teachers considering using Deborah Ellis’s books in their classrooms but who may wonder if their students are ready for such powerful stories, I would say that I have used Deborah Ellis’s books in Grade 4 and 5 classrooms and, without doubt, children have received and responded to them with maturity, insight, and compassion that would put many adults to shame. So, if you are an intermediate, middle, or secondary teacher, and you are looking for a writer who will engage, inspire, and inform your students, I can think of no better choice.

Murray Corren is district staff at Winslow Centre, Coquitlam.

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