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Deborah EllisAbout Deborah Ellis

How does a person go from growing up in a tiny town in rural Ontario to becoming an award-winning writer whose books have been translated into twenty-five languages?

How do you go from life as a teenaged loner to being invited to speak at conferences and schools around the world? From being the kid with no friends to someone who has improved the lives of others — especially girls and women — in countries like Afghanistan?

If you’re Deborah Ellis, that journey involves hard work, a bit of
luck, and being inspired and saved by the power of books. 

Deb was born near Mooso
nee, Ontario, and she grew up in a small town in southern Ontario. As a kid she spent a lot of time on her own, rambling in the hills outside town. “I was not a very friendly kind of person,” she admits. “There’s not a whole lot to say about it. Loners are loners … People feel like they’re on the outside, and they don’t have a sense that they can change their circumstances.”

But she had a rich fantasy life, and she loved to read. She also loved to write — stories, poems, plays. “It was really bad, all of it,” she says, and she got used to a lot of rejections: “When I was eleven or twelve I’d do stupid things such as sending suicide poems to Good Housekeeping magazine.”

Deb Ellis child photoThen, when she was still in high school, she joined the peace movement and started to learn more about politics and about the world. She became a feminist and a peace activist.

In 1996, when De
b read about the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan, and about their brutal treatment of girls and women, she decided that she had to get involved. She visited refugee camps in Pakistan, met Afghan women and heard about their experiences. She was particularly struck by the story of a young girl who cut off her hair and disguised herself as a boy so she could earn money to support her family. Deb knew she had to turn that story into a book. The result was the Breadwinner novels, about young Parvana and her best friend, Shauzia.

Parvana and Shau
zia may be fictional characters, but to young readers all over the world they are real people. They are also real to Deborah Ellis, who says she has often imagined what happened to the girls, living in an Afghanistan that is still both dangerous and hopeful. Last year she decided to let those characters back into her head to see where they would lead her. The result is My Name Is Parvana, a riveting novel that is harrowing, inspiring and thought-provoking all at the same time.

Deb now has twenty books to her credit. She has won the Governor General’s Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, the University of California’s Middle East Book Award, Sweden’s Peter Pan Prize, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for a Body of Work. She recently received the Ontario Library Association’s President’s Award for Exceptional Achievement, and she has been named to the Order of Ontario. And she remains a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised. She “walks the talk,” donating most of her royalty income to worthy causes — Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Street Kids International, the Children in Crisis Fund
of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) and UNICEF. She has donated more than $1 million in royalties from her Breadwinner books alone.
She’s often asked why she does it — works so hard on her books and then gives so much of her money away. “I could have done some neat things for myself,” she says, “but [in Afghanistan], we’ve built women’s centers, we’ve built schools, we’ve put kids into education, and we’ve put women to work. We’ve done so much more over there than I could have done here, and, hell, that’s fun.”

Today Deb lives in Simcoe, Ontario, a small town surrounded by woods and farm fields just north of Lake Erie. A former counselor in a psychiatric group home for women, she now writes full-time. She continues to travel widely, writing about the lives of children in conflict zones, talking to children and educators about her books and encouraging her audiences to imagine a world without war. “We have to imagine it first,” Deb says. “Then we can make it happen. We create the world we want to see.”

Royalties from the sales of My Name Is Parvana will go to a special account managed by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Parvana’s Fund supports education projects for Afghan women and children, including women’s resource centers, libraries, literacy programs and community schools.
Copyright © 2012 Groundwood Books