Thursday, April 03, 2014

"Books can help us remember what we have in common" - Five Questions with Deborah Ellis

On March 20, we were involved in a series of events with author and peace activist Deborah Ellis.

Deborah was on a UK tour from her home in Ontario, Canada - and if there is a single word which comes to mind about the visit, it's 'privileged' - because it was a word we have heard a lot from those that met her and heard her speak. Privileged and inspired to listen to this humble, softly spoken but powerful individual talk about her books and her life.

Deborah has written over twenty books, and is probably best-known for her international bestseller The Breadwinner, as well as many other works of fiction and non-fiction about children all over the world. She has won numerous book awards, including Sweden’s Peter Pan Prize and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award (for promoting peace and social justice).


Deborah first visited Didcot Girl's School, where she spoke to the girls about some of the themes which she weaves into her books. The Breadwinner is the story of Pervana, a girl in Afghanistan forced to pretend to be a boy in order to earn money to help her family survive when her father is taken away by Taliban soldiers.

The story was inspired by conversations that she had had with girls whilst visiting Afghan refugee camps, and she was very careful to explain to the girls in the audience about these themes: of suffering, inequality and cruelty of course - but most of all courage that she encountered, the thing that most inspires her.

In her most recent book, 'My Name Is Parvana', Parvana her self is now fifteen and dealing with the consequences of foreign soldiers in her country. When she is taken away by American soldiers and accused of terrorism, everything that Parvana has worked for in building a new life for her and her family threatens to come crashing down...

Her talk was genuinely inspirational, if difficult at times to listen to - particularly when she was reading from another of her most recent books, based on interviews with 'Kids of Kabul' and the daily realities of struggling to go to school in the face of uncertainty and the economic hardships they face. 

Deborah is above all an advocate for the disenfranchised and oppressed, talking calmly but passionately about the capacity money and power have to make people's lives better - or much, much worse. She donates much of her royalties to charities such as UNICEF and Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (more than a million dollars in royalties from her Breadwinner books alone).

After speaking at Didcot, and answering lots of questions about how she writes, and the children she has met, we brought her to Abingdon (where she spent some time exploring the town), and from there she spoke to children at Our Lady's Senior School, and the Oxford Children's Book Group in the evening.


We are extremely grateful to OUP for offering us the chance to be part of Deborah's tour, and huge thanks to Deborah for spending time talking to children around Oxfordshire.

Whilst at Mostly Books, we got the chance to ask Deborah a few questions about her writing life...

Five questions with...Deborah Ellis' Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

"The Cat At The Wall" due for publication in the Autumn. It's a book set in Israel's West Bank.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given? 

If you really want to do it, keep doing it, don't give up, even if people tell you what you are writing is 'crap'.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing about writing is getting to meet kids from all over the world. There is no bad thing about writing for children (or nothing I would go 'on the record' for!)

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work? 

No - just a pen and notebook.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

When I published my first book. It was called 'Looking for X' and published by OUP. This changed everything for me, because there is a whole universe of difference between being an unpublished and published writer.

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