Tough Subjects, books by Deborah Ellis

Nancy Bo Flood  April 15, 2011

Deborah Ellis is a Canadian activist and author who takes on tough subjects, like this one:


Refugees, they are here, but are they welcome?

We have been at war in the Middle East for nearly ten years.

Ten years.  If you were a child, ten years could be your entire life.

If you are one of the lucky ones, you have survived, but not without loss…the loss of school, friends, your home and perhaps your family.

Thousands of children have been displaced by war and  are now refugees in strange lands. Many are living in this land, the USA, our country. Too often their experience in schools and communities is one of taunting and teasing, rejection and exclusion. We have not shared their journey; we have not heard their story.  We might not even recognize the name of the country that was once their home.

Deborah Ellis in her book, CHILDREN OF WAR, gives a voice to children who are refugees because of war. She invites us to hear the stories of children who have lived war and then have faced the challenge of letting go of what they know and love and create a new home, a new life.

Her introduction in CHILDREN OF WAR is an invitation to listen and learn. First she presents a clear summary of events which allows the reader, young or old, to begin to understand the unfolding of events in Iraq that eventually allowed no one, especially children and families, to remain safe, to stay untouched, unharmed by war.  It didn’t matter whose “side” you were on, if you were assisting the United States or fighting against US soldiers. Homes were bombed. Employees were fired or shot. Political leaders were exiled:  “As of the end of October, 2008, between 88, 373 and 96,466 civilians in Iraq had died violently as a result of the 2003 invasion.”1

Ellis’s comprehensive and clear introduction is followed by interviews with the children and teens who have lived the experience of war and then of being displaced.  Their candid descriptions offer insight, a startling sense of both courage and hope, and a window of understanding about the emotional trauma experienced by these children.  The reality of war is shown clearly:  war destroys. The reality of being an unwanted, often uninvited guest, is poignantly described.  But within these voices one hears a strong belief that “yes, I can do this.”

In  nearly every community and school in the United States, there are the “they,” the displaced children who as refugees have been transported to a strange place in a faraway land. Often these children suffer again, rejected, shunned, teased by peers. They are perceived as different, odd, and weird.  Perhaps they speak with an accent. Perhaps their clothing does not have the “right labels.”  Perhaps most of us have no idea what they have endured, the loneliness and isolation they are now experiencing, or what they yearn to have again – friends, family and home.

Compassion is not an immediate response, not from a child and seldom from an adult. Compassion follows education. Ellis is masterful at showing us the difficult journey of these children:  war happens, war destroys, and children are exported, even in newfound safety they run across problems, rejection, loneliness and memories of terror.

In one interview we hear Michael explain, “we came to Jordan [from Iraq] two years ago.  My father is dead…my father used to work as a reservations manager in the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad…We are Christian.”  Michael’s father lost his job because he wouldn’t get rid of the picture of the Virgin Mary on his desk.  He lost his life because he couldn’t get any medical care when he became seriously ill. Michael and his family had to leave their home overnight or be killed. They were accepted as refugees by Australia, “but Australia changed its mind and doesn’t want us.”

Michael hopes their family can be resettled in the United States, but he is worried: “I have nothing in common with American children, except if there is maybe an American child whose father has died, who house is destroyed, and who is forced to live in a foreign country that doesn’t want them.  Then he and I would have something to talk about.” (Ellis, p.37)

In each of the interviews one hears a voice who still has hope.  Hibba, at sixteen, expresses her dream:  “One of my dreams is to become very educated and…establish some sort of organization to take care of children who have suffered in war.  Many have suffered much  more than I have, but I have some understanding of what they go through, how they feel their world is taken from them.” (Ellis, p.23)

Awareness and education leads to understanding .  As a reader listens to Hibba whose father was shot in the head, whose brother has been detained in Iraq, whose home was destroyed, who does not have a school to attend…perhaps each reader will stop and smile and say hello, welcome, to the new refugee child that sits alone in the classroom.

Deborah Ellis, Canadian author and political activist, takes on tough issues: women’s rights, foreign intervention and war. Her books are powerful examples that one voice can make a difference – that the pen can be as mighty as the sword or even a machine gun!  In her books Ellis shows what life is like for many children.  In THE BREADWINNER TRILOGY a young girl dresses as a boy to work for bread to keep her family alive. Danger is part of every day; life for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime is as precarious as the morning dew in the desert.  In THE HEAVEN SHOP survival is a daily challenge for the AIDS orphans in Africa’s Malawi.

Hard harsh subjects – but Deborah Ellis is able to show us and open our hearts rather than push us away. She believes that “Children are really hungry to learn about what is going on in the world.” (2) The reader wants to hear these voices, the stories told by children who describe a different world.  Compassion follows awareness and knowledge.

The clarity of the descriptions and the power of Ellis’s writing might remind one of Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE.  In the first chapter, Vonnegut states, “The nicest veterans in Schenectady, I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.” (p.11, 3).

Vonnegut, who fought in WWII and who was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by US planes, wrote:

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No.  What do you say…?”

“I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers….” (p.3, 3)

Deborah Ellis takes on the challenge of asking young readers to listen to harsh stories, anti-war stories.  The wonderful first surprise is that one hears hope.  The second surprise is that each interview creates an interest in hearing more, learning more, perhaps meeting and talking with a child or adult who is a refugee and admitting, “I don’t know what it is like to lose everything and to be here feeling like an uninvited guest, but I would like to listen. Invisible lines are not easy to cross.  But books can cheer you on.

Taking on a glacier is a tough job.  In her books Deborah Ellis is doing a darn good job.

  1. Source:  Other estimates are higher, for example, estimates the deaths a 1.2 million.
  2., retrieved April 9, 2011

Reprinted from the Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2005, Number 1 with permission of Andrea Maxworthy O’Brien, Deborah Ellis, and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2005 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.

  1. Slaughter House Five. Kurt Vonnegut,Jr. Dell Publishing, NY, 1969.

4.       “Deborah Ellis.” Something about the Author, vol. 129, Gale, 2002, pp. 66-67.

5.      Folios, Alison. “Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak” (Book Review).
School Library Journal
, Oct. 2004, vol. 50, issue 10, p.161.

6.      Rochman, Hazel. “The Heaven Shop” (Book Review).
, September 1, 2004, vol. 101, issue 1, p.120.

Books by Deborah Ellis:

Looking for X. Groundwood Books, 1999
Women of the Afghan War. Praeger Books, 2000.
The Breadwinner. Groundwood Books, 2001.
Parvana’s Journey. Groundwood Books, 2002.
A Company of Fools. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
Mud City. Groundwood Books, 2003.
Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. Groundwood, 2004.
The Heaven Shop. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004.

2 comments for “Tough Subjects, books by Deborah Ellis

  1. April 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    You know, it’s hard to believe that we’ve been at war in the Middle East for almost ten years. That’s almost a third of my life! And it feels like just yesterday that I was flying home from Australia, knowing that we might be at war by the time the plane landed…That’s precisely what happened. But a lifetime for a child!

  2. April 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Imagine war always “next door” as part of going to school,the market, even at prayer. If you become a refugee living in a foreign place, how do you relate to “peers” whose only knowing of war is what they see on TV? Nancy

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