This fall's line up of books for children and young adults is simply stunning as you'll see from this very first offering of the season. There's much more to come in upcoming issues of Books in Canada¨a round-up of new and exciting international fantasy fiction¨everything from Carnegie award-winner Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents to fictions by Mary Hoffman, Neil Gaiman, Cornelia Funke, Roderick Townley and Vivian Vande Velde amongst others. We're going to see a review of the second crop of outstanding new young adult fictions in the Orca Soundings series which includes Sheree Fitch's first foray into young adult writing. There'll be reviews of young adult fictions by Linda Holman, Eric Walters, Richard Scrimger and Books in Canada reviewer Gillian Chan. We'll tell you about some of the incredible picture books that are being released over the next few months and introduce you to some exciting new faces in Canadian children's literature.
But to start off the fall season, nothing could give me greater pleasure than to highlight Deborah Ellis's marvellous Parvana's Journey¨a simply stunning sequel to The Breadwinner and a novel that well deserves the high praise bestowed by reviewer Deborah Wandal¨as well the re-issue of Janne Carlsson's Camel Bells and Catheryn Clinton's A Stone in My Hand. Marking the anniversary of September 11th, the children's section of Books in Canada would like to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the International Board on Books for Young People, an organization that for the last half-century has been trying to break down barriers and foster bonds between cultures through children's literature, aiming to ease the plight of children at risk in war-torn countries around the globe that these outstanding authors write about with such eloquence.
Editor, Children's Book Section, Books in Canada
Parvana's Journey is the gripping second book in Deborah Ellis's powerful trilogy about a young girl's life in contemporary Afghanistan. The first book, The Breadwinner, documented the brutal cultural and socio-economic restrictions imposed under Taliban rule, and the disbelief, rage and despair of people deprived of their freedom, their work and their social world. The oppression of women, the closing of schools and rounding up of educated dissidents, created desperate economic circumstances, compelling many young girls like Parvana, to disguise themselves as boys and go to work in the marketplace in order to support households of women literally imprisoned in their own homes.
In this second book, Ellis shifts from the particular tyrannies of Afghan life to a story with a more universal resonance. With the Taliban's fundamentalist ideology as a backdrop, Ellis unfolds for the reader an almost matter-of-fact account of children's daily struggle for survival in a war-torn country. The story begins with the death of Parvana's father. The two of them have been wandering the country since his release from prison, searching for the rest of their family. Now, Parvana is alone. But she is not just without family. She is without any protection or support from the larger society around her. The very first adult to Šhelp' Parvana soon has plans to sell her to the Taliban. The second adult she encounters is a woman with the dead eyes of someone beyond help and beyond hope. When Parvana screams in helpless rage, "you're an adult, you're supposed to take care of me," there is no response. Adults, in this time of war, are frequently incapable of acting responsibly. Worn out or driven mad by deprivation and the loss of hope, they cannot help, and all too many, it seems, are willing to exploit, beat or kill children.
Initially, I found myself hoping that help for Parvana was just around the next hill as she continued her quest for her mother, sister and brother; however, I quickly became conscious of the shallowness of my wish for an easy resolution, especially as I read Parvana's letter to her best friend, Shauzia, who left Kabul just before Parvana and her father. She writes that she can no longer believe in the fairy stories and happy endings from her childhood. ". . .when I'm old .. I'll believe in [them] again. But what do I believe in until then?" Parvana must grapple with the hardest questions of all: where is meaning to be found in such a life? What answer can she give to such questions as "Why do the bombs want to kill [all the people under them]?" uttered by mere babes such as young Leila, a girl whom Parvana who "adopts" as a younger sister after her grandmother is killed.
In this dystopean world, it is quickly clear that Parvana must find her own path, both literally and metaphorically, as she moves through a country with almost no food, no clean water, no intact infrastructure, and farmers' fields full of landmines. Ellis has created a fully realized character in Parvana. Continually being shaped and toughened by the incomprehensible events of war, this girl also remains in many ways a child, dreaming of being cared for, occasionally overcome by petty jealousies and impatience, reluctant to abandon her fantasies. The story follows four children who have found each other, as they struggle to create their own little microcosm of social order and find some meaning and love in their lives. All four, Parvana among them, long for family, and the story returns continually to the complex question of what constitutes a family.
Despite the bleak reality of the circumstances about which she is writing, Ellis has crafted a strong narrative with a good dramatic arc and episodic breaks. When the children are able to carve a peaceful space out of the warring world around them, their resilience and hope blossom, and their dreams for a real home are almost realized through their inventiveness, skill and hard work. But of course, this refuge cannot last, and back on the road, the questions the children ask become more basic and desperate: why bother to eat one day, when you only get hungry again the next day? Will we even survive?
At different points in the children's journey, Ellis compels the reader to experience almost viscerally the relentlessness of their hunger. Parvana records, without drama, how her mind becomes dull and stupid after days without food, her stomach feels both painful and empty, how small, starving babies become "floppy" and won't respond to anything, and how eating the pages of a precious book just because there is nothing else to eat becomes a reasonable thing to do. On her way to a refugee camp, starving and sick, Parvana thinks "the part of me that's me is gone. I'm just part of this line of people." These words of a child, as she disappears from herself into a statistic the rest of the world will read about, are almost too painful to read.
Ellis's spare and direct writing style convincingly delivers Parvana's interior voice, which throughout the book seems to pursue two contradictory streams of thought. Both of these conceptual threads are essential to Parvana's survival, and no doubt to the survival, on a larger scale, of a culture facing immanent collapse. On the one hand, Parvana is a lover of words, carrying her father's books and the magazine containing her mother's article on social justice as she goes. She searches for meaning in her life as she writes her letters, remembers her family and friends and takes on responsibility for those from whom she cannot turn away. On the other hand, she is focused on brute survival, and it is pragmatism that helps her survive, not poetic images. Who has time for flowers now, she thinks at one point, when she remembers the beautiful gardens of her early childhood. She trusts no one. Realizing that her dreams of a long-term refuge can be realized only if others die in a mine field, she is not shocked at herself, "I didn't create this world. I only have to live in it." At this point in her life, Parvana does not¨dare not¨waste her energy raging against, or even thinking about, the great forces that could destroy her. Instead, she takes great care avoiding the Taliban, and the bombs falling around her. And she survives them. For the present, this is all she can do. Ellis leaves us wondering when Parvana will be ready to join the struggle for change.
Parvana is not a child like any other. She is a child of war. She is one of those to whom Parvana's Journey is dedicated: "To the children we force to be braver than they should have to be."
A with The Breadwinner, all royalties from the sale of Parvana's Journey will be donated to Women for Women, an organization that helps women in Afghanistan.
Deborah Wandal is a lover of gardens, kayaking and
children's literature who lives and works in Toronto.