On the 15th Anniversary of the Publication of The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis Reflects on War

9781554987658It’s been thirty-six years since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It’s been twenty-six years since their departure marked the start of the bloody civil war. It’s been nineteen years since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban army, and fourteen years since that terrible day in September that unleashed events leading to the Taliban’s removal from power.

That’s an awful lot of war for a country that’s barely the size of Texas.

My involvement with Afghanistan began when the news of the crimes of the Taliban hit the Toronto newspapers back in l996. Since then, I have been trying to understand what war does to people.

War is made by people living in safety who make the decision to take risks with the lives of others whose opinions on the matter are not even solicited. War is made by those who profit from the manufacturing of weaponry. War is made by people who are too lazy to put the creative work and compassion into coming up with a solution to their problems that does not involve murder.

I’ve seen the way bombs and bullets shatter human bodies and devastate families. I’ve learned what happens when the destruction of infrastructure leads to bad water, food shortages and the lack of medical care. And I’ve learned from refugees about how their lives have been derailed and reduced to Waiting — for food, for shelter, for documents, for peace.

Through all the tales of crime and chaos, there have been heroes — giants of courage — who, in big ways and small, put human decency above all else.

I’ve met teachers around the world who carve out little niches of safety and childhood for kids in need. I’ve met librarians who remind us that human beings are capable of creating things noble and sublime. I’ve met builders and farmers, health workers and home workers who go through incredible difficulties just to make the next day, the next hour a little bit better for those around them. I’ve met parents of dead children who take in children of dead parents, raising them with love and care.

And I’ve met children who cast aside the hatreds of the older generation and work toward building a world of radical kindness and beauty.

In today’s warfare, ninety-five percent of the casualties are civilians. This means that when we give our governments permission to go to war, we are giving them permission to kill people who are just like us — who complain about the weather, love their children and wonder what to have for dinner. People who have done us no harm.

Books can help us remember what we have in common as humans.

That’s what I try to do with mine.

Deborah Ellis

The Breadwinner is an award-winning novel about loyalty, survival, families and friendship under extraordinary circumstances during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. Since the original publication of The Breadwinner in 2000, the series has been published in twenty-five languages and earned more than $1 million in royalties to benefit Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kids International.

A Guest Post by Frieda Wishinksy on Writing Avis Dolphin

Sometimes a story finds you. It pulls you in. It transports you to another time and place. It helps you remember a moment, a person or an experience.

That’s what happened with Avis Dolphin. I was researching shipwrecks for a non-fiction book. One of the shipwrecks was the Lusitania, the magnificent Cunard ocean liner torpedoed on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat off the coast of England. As I read about the passengers, I stumbled upon the story of a twelve-year-old girl with the wonderful name of Avis Dolphin. Her story was even more engaging than her name.

She travelled on the Lusitania with two women who worked for her mother. She was lonely and apprehensive about the future. Luckily, Avis met Professor Ian Holbourn. He was a teacher, a writer and a speaker, and he told her stories, took her on walks around the Lusitania and cared about her as if she were one of his own children. He told her that if something were to happen to the ship, he’d be there for her. And he was.

We all hope that in a crisis we’ll find a kind, caring friend like Ian Holbourn. We also hope that if tragedy strikes we’ll find the fortitude and courage to survive. But it’s not easy. It couldn’t have been easy for Avis.

The more I read about her experience, the more her story resonated with me. Like Avis, I sailed across the Atlantic for the first time when I was twelve. Like her, I left New York on a sparkling, clear spring day. And, like her, I travelled to meet relatives I didn’t know in a country I’d never visited. Unlike Avis, I travelled with my Mom.

On our second day at sea, we hit a storm. Chairs slid across the decks. Furniture flew across the cabin. I was violently seasick. My mom hurt her head and a man died of injuries he sustained as the ship tossed and turned.

Luckily, the storm finally subsided. The ship didn’t sink. And when the sea calmed, I explored the ship and made friends. We shared stories and adventures.

Writing about Avis made me remember those days and my fear, apprehension, relief and excitement. But most of all it reminded me how stories and friendships enrich our lives in good times and bad.


Frieda WishinskyAbout Frieda Wishinsky
Frieda Wishinsky is an award-winning author and teacher with a Master of Science in special education. Her first picture book, Ooonga Boonga, was voted “Pick of the List” by American booksellers, and Each One Special was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. She has written more than forty trade and educational books, and many of them have been translated into French, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Korean, Spanish and Catalan. Frieda lives with her family in Toronto.

David Homel and Marie-Louise Gay: How to Talk to Kids About War


One of our memorable family trips that was just waiting to be turned into a book took us to the coast of Croatia, a landscape of countless islands linked by improvised ferries. The country is peaceful and beautiful today, but the scars of recent ethnic conflict are just beneath the surface.

Traveling-Circus_3-1This new book held a special challenge for us as writers and parents who travel with their kids. Our Traveling Circus takes place in a country recently torn apart by the civil war that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. How do you fit that into a novel for young readers? How do we as parents and writers explain events to our kids? How would Charlie and Max, the two brothers on a trip with their parents, figure out what happened in this place, and how would it affect them?

They would do what any of us would. They compare their new surroundings to what they know from back home. On my street, Charlie says, people speak different languages and have different religions and look different, but they don’t fight. So what happened here? He will get his answers before the book comes to an end, and return home richer for it.

The other thing Charlie does is get a guide. Several guides, actually: his parents’ old friends Fred and Gordana and their grandson Libero, and their friends, the completely bald Bobo and his wife Silvia, who looks like a movie star. These people, part of the traveling circus, are a mixture of origins and backgrounds. They experienced the war, and have stories to share with Charlie and his brother.

But Charlie really begins to find things out when he heads off on his own adventures – with Max trailing behind, as always. On one of the islands they visit, a place where cars have yet to set foot, Charlie and Max come upon a frightening hermit with a few secrets that have to do with the war.

In The Traveling Circus, we mixed drama and humor in the right measure. When the kids discover a village that is half destroyed, half intact, and entirely deserted, they really see what a civil war means. But there is plenty of laughter as they confront fish thieves and ferry pilots who seem to be sailing with their eyes closed. Not to mention the time they almost get thrown into prison for sneaking across a border without their passports (Charlie was only taking Max behind the closest bush for a pee).


The Traveling Circus will take readers of our three previous books in this series to a place that few people see from the inside. We hope our Circus will inspire them to imagine other lives in other places, and widen their view of the world today.

Marie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of children’s books. She has won many prestigious awards, including two Governor General’s awards, the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Award, the Vicky Metcalf Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

David Homel is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, journalist and translator. He has won the Governor General’s Award for translation, and the Hugh MacLennan Prize and the Jewish Public Library Award for fiction. His most recent novel is Midway. He lives in Montreal, Quebec. Together they have written four books about their family adventures.

Boldly go! Linda Little explains the magic of tall ships


Years ago my partner and I made the two-hour trek into Halifax to catch a festival of tall ships and to watch the Parade of Sail. The ships, all rigged out and with their crews out on deck or up in the rigging, sailed a wide circle around Halifax harbor and then set off to sea. A few weeks later at a summer gathering with friends, we were all discussing the spectacle and a teenager said, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal with the tall ships?” A few of us fumbled around with bumbling half-answers but the question stuck with me. In the days when nothing moved except by the power of wind, water, or muscle, the prospect of seeing beyond one’s horizons must have been a powerful lure for the curious and adventurous. It was ten years before I finally addressed that question with the text for a picture book. What is the big deal? Tall ships are a symbol to us of worlds beyond our experience. They are about courage and curiosity and exploration. They are about setting off into the unknown and embracing what we find.


My past writing experience is mostly writing novels for adults. Writing a picture book is more like writing a poem. It requires one really good idea that is expressed within 1,000 words rather than a set-up that allows for continuous tension. What I learned is that, like any piece of writing, a picture book needs a strong foundation. Authors need to know exactly what they are saying. The story is an easily accessible narrative, but the underlying idea needs to be strong enough to support the story for years of reading and to support a young reader’s own imagination. In the case of Work and More Work: boldly go!

Linda Little is a short-story writer and novelist. She has won the Cunard First Book Award, the Lilla Stirling Memorial Award, the Dartmouth Book Award and the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. She currently teaches composition and the literature of Atlantic Canada at Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture. This is her first picture book. She lives in River John, Nova Scotia.

Charis Wahl and the Bottle Gourd

Charis Wahl’s new book, Rosario’s Fig Tree, is about a little girl whose neighbor has a very green thumb. Rosario grows “tomatoes and peppers and beans and zucchinis and cucumbers and eggplants and lots of things I don’t know.” The book is inspired by the people on Charis’s street, and in honor of its publication she’s shared a story of her own about mysterious things growing in the garden next door.


We have a lattice fence between our backyard and that of our neighbors. While our yard is pretty much a mess, theirs has neat lines of poles joined by strings, on which vines climb. Some of the vines climb the fence. They are a very pretty lime color and have large, bright flowers, a definite improvement on mere fence.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 3.33.35 PMOne day we realized that there was a two-foot-long, light-green object hanging over the fence — sort of like a giant caterpillar, but not hairy. We gently sent it back over the fence to its rightful home and thought no more about it.

Some time later, our neighbor came to the door and handed us the green object. There followed much mutual bowing and miming of “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” as we have no language in common, but no answer to the question of what to do with the unidentified crop.

Enter the internet: it turned out to be a bottle gourd, a cousin of a squash — no mystery there — but what kind was a revelation. Sure, you can eat it — we curried ours — and it’s frighteningly healthy, but that’s just the beginning. They are also used in cosmetics, as medicine containers, made into musical instruments and, yes, turned into water bottles. Dry them properly, give them a couple of hits of bleach, wax the inside surface and, eureka, Thermos is out of business.

And to think that I saw only a backyard filled with pretty vines. Silly me.

Charis Wahl is an author and editor of books for children and adults. She co-authored Doris McCarthy: My Life and co-edited Love, Hope, Optimism: An Informal Portrait of Jack Layton by Those Who Knew Him. Her next-door neighbor of thirty-five years inspired her to write Rosario’s Fig Tree. She lives in downtown Toronto.

Sidewalk Flowers: a love letter to Toronto from illustrator Sydney Smith

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When I received an email from Groundwood asking me to illustrate JonArno’s story Sidewalk Flowers, my partner, Maggie, and I had already decided to relocate from Halifax to Toronto for her to study at Ryerson. And I was nervous.

I had tried moving to Toronto nine years before. I worked there in unbearable heat, with a bad case of poison ivy, digging out a basement on Lawrence Avenue for a temp agency that paid you in coins from a vending machine. I hitchhiked back to Halifax immediately.


But this time was different. I was older; I had a purpose and someone to share it with. Immediately, the city was exciting and infinite with so many things to discover. Each day I biked to my tiny studio space in Chinatown from our tinier apartment and I would sketch and photograph the people, the bent bikes, the old buildings, the sparrows, and the streetcar wires. Working on JonArno’s beautiful story, full of tenderness and beauty, forced me to look around at my new home and see how magical it really is. The images I made for this story are my love letter to Toronto.



Sydney Smith was born in rural Nova Scotia, and has been drawing since an early age. Since graduating from NSCAD University, he has illustrated multiple children’s books, including the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers, and he has received awards for his illustrations, including the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He now lives in Toronto and works in a shared studio space in Chinatown where he eats too many banh mi sandwiches and goes to the library or the Art Gallery of Ontario on his breaks.

Sidewalk Flowers – Writing a Story Without Words

JonArno Lawson is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including Enjoy It While It Hurts, Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, and Think Again. He is a four-time winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Poetry. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three children. We asked him to share the story behind his new wordless picture book, Sidewalk Flowers.

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The storyline of Sidewalk Flowers evolved directly out of a walk I took with my daughter, Sophie, from her art class near the corner of Bathurst and Dupont, to our house on Arlington. I can even tell you the date of the walk – June 18th, 2008.

Sophie was seven at the time. My son, JoJo, was two days old, and my middle son, Ashey, was four. My wife, Amy, was home with Ashey and JoJo, and I wanted to get back quickly – I looked for a cab, but couldn’t get one to stop. I was rushing (it’s an hour’s walk), not paying close attention to Sophie or what she was doing. Bathurst Street looked grey and ugly – I was full of worry, not really seeing the world around me.

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Suddenly I noticed that Sophie was gathering flowers – the tiny little flowers that poke up through cement cracks – things like pineapple weed, dandelion, clover and vetch, and she was singing. When we got home she decorated JoJo’s hat with some of the flowers, gave some to Ashey, some to Amy, and then she went off and did something else. Ashey was even playing outside with snails when we got home (as in the book!).

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It seemed symbolic to me – Sophie finding colour in the grey world, and then giving away what she’d found – and she didn’t seem to be conscious of what she was doing at all, which also seemed important. I realized it would make a beautiful book – without any words, with bits of colour building through a black, white and grey world – I could picture it, but wasn’t capable of capturing it in pictures. The editorial genius of Sheila Barry and the illustrative genius Sydney Smith were both required to make it what it is now.

How to Write a Story Without Words

JonArno Lawson is a writer, but he imagined Sidewalk Flowers as a wordless picture book. So how did he write a story without words? Here are some pictures of his original manuscript. Sydney Smith used JonArno’s notes and storyboard, and photos and sketches from his own walks around Toronto to bring Sidewalk Flowers to life.




A Kensington Market Tour with Cary Fagan

In the year 2000, Cary Fagan published his second book for kids, The Market Wedding. The book won the Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and the World Storytelling Award, and was singled out as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book. Fast forward fourteen years, and Cary has twenty-two kids’ books to his name (we publish many of them at Groundwood!) and seven books for adults. His books have earned many distinctions, including two Silver Birch Awards, the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, and a long-listing for the prestigious Giller Prize.

The setting of The Market Wedding is Toronto’s Kensington Market, one of the most vibrant and storied neighbourhoods in the city. The market also happens to be a short walk from Groundwood HQ, so when we decided to re-release Cary’s book, we knew we had a perfect opportunity to get a tour of this special place from the author himself — and to see what some of the locations depicted in Regolo Ricci’s illustrations look like today.


The first thing we did was to fuel up for the tour at Jimmy’s Coffee on Baldwin Street. Over delicious cappuccinos, Cary showed us the original inspiration for The Market Wedding. His picture book is based on a short story for adults by Abraham Cahan called “Ghetto Wedding.” That story was set in Manhattan’s Lower-East side and written in pseudo-Yiddish slang. When Cary read the story, he knew it would be perfect for kids, so he re-wrote it and set it in the neighbourhood he visited often as a child and where his mother grew up.

Which brings us to our first stop. Like our heroes in The Market Wedding, Cary’s mom grew up on Nassau Street. Can you see any similarities between Morris and Minnie’s second-story flat and Cary’s mom’s yellow-painted brick home?

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In Cary’s book, Morris and Minnie are married in a synagogue modelled after the Kiever Synagogue on Bellevue Avenue, right in the heart of the market.


While we gazed at the synagogue, Cary talked about Regolo Ricci’s rich illustrations. Regolo came to Canada from Italy, so like many of the characters in The Market Wedding, he knows what it is like to be an immigrant. His empathy with the characters really comes through in the small details in his pictures. In early sketches, Morris and Minnie looked too glamorous, and Cary asked Regolo to make the couple look more working class. For inspiration, all the illustrator needed was a mirror: Morris’s look is based on the artist himself!

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Kensington Market has changed since Cary’s childhood, when he remembers Jewish butchers and live chickens crowding the sidewalks — and it’s changed even more since Morris and Minnie’s time, almost a hundred years ago! These days, Kensington’s narrow streets host vintage clothing stores, student bars, public art, and incense shops next to the corner groceries and fish mongers. But in all its iterations, the colorful neighborhood has always captured Cary Fagan’s imagination.

Pick up a copy of The Market Wedding, and it will be sure to capture yours too.



W978-1-55498-695-8_lhen Morris the fishmonger and Minnie the hat seller fall in love, Morris comes up with a wedding plan designed to deliver the very best for his beloved bride-to-be… with unexpected consequences.


Thinking about Home is Beyond the Mountains [Guest Post from Celia Barker Lottridge]


When I was growing up, my parents often told stories about their young years. My mother lived in a mission to the Assyrian people in Persia until she was nine years old. In my childhood, when she was cooking she would tell us how bread was baked in Persia or how delicious the fruit was.

Her stories and my father’s gave me much that I have used in my writing and in my other main activity, storytelling. But it wasn’t until my mother was quite old that she told us about what happened to her family and friends during the First World War, which, of course, was fought not only in Europe but throughout the Middle East.


I think that by then the sharpness of the memories of 1915 — the desperate refugees, the death of her mother and others as disease spread, the necessity of leaving home to go to strange relatives in America — had faded, so that she could think about that time. She found herself in possession of hundreds of family letters and other papers that she read in order to learn more than she could remember. She pieced together many interesting stories.

One of the most interesting was about her oldest sister, Susan, who went back to Persia four years after the war to be the director of an orphanage for Assyrian children whose parents had died during the war. These children were both orphans and refugees, still far from the places they were born and from extended families who would welcome them.


When I started to write Home is Beyond the Mountains, I was focusing on Susan and the remarkable journey she took with three hundred children, walking three hundred miles across barren land so that they could get home.

But as I thought about Susan and the orphanage, I became more and more interested in the children themselves. Where had they been during the four years between the end of the war and the opening of the orphanage? How had they escaped when their villages were attacked? Those were only the first questions than led me on a long research journey that answered many, but not all, of my questions.


We are now very aware of the plight of refugees and the effect of conflict on all the people who are there when a conflict takes place. But our stories of the First World War tend to focus on people directly involved in military action; the stories of ordinary people whose lives were ended or changed may be forgotten. Perhaps this is especially true of the stories of the million or so people displaced from their homes in the countries we now call Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

One of the stories my mother told was about looking down from the flat roof of her family’s house and seeing hundreds of people crowded into the mission courtyard, unwrapping small bundles of food and spreading a cloth on the ground so their children would have a place to sleep. She knew there was danger in their villages and they couldn’t return. Where would they go? she wondered.


Family stories give us pictures and may make us ask questions. In my case, writing a novel helped me find some answers.

Celia Barker Lottridge

 Layout 1Celia Barker Lottridge is a writer and storyteller who has written several highly acclaimed children’s books, including Ticket to Curlew (winner of the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and the Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction Award), Wings To Fly, and Home is Beyond the Mountains.



Martine Leavitt knows the power of a good animal story

You are a little girl. You are reading a story that has a plot like this:

Starving, deprived of food by the enemy, he steals to feed his mate, his children. The enemy puts a price on his head. Over and over, they try to kill him, but he eludes them. They devise a plan to pursue his mate, and finally they capture her. They break her neck with ropes tied to horse, while he watches helplessly from afar. He follows the body of his mate into the heart of the enemy camp, where they capture him. But they cannot hold him, for that night he dies of a broken heart.

You peek up from your book, and you nod. You had suspected as much.

The book is called Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton, and the story you are reading is “Lobo the King of Currumpaw,” the story of a wolf and his sad end. You look about you. None of your adults seem to mind that you are reading this book. They have, in fact, encouraged you. Usually adults don’t tell you secrets, don’t want you to know about the heartbreaks and horrors that are possible. You have guessed a great deal. You hear things they say to one another when they don’t realize you’re playing under the kitchen table or skulking in the next room. You have to find out almost everything there is to know about the adult world surreptitiously.

But now they have handed you a book that talks about survival, injustice, murder, brutality, heroism, despair, and unspeakable devotion and love. Your adults are not alarmed because it is a book about animals, after all. Books about animals don’t count. But somehow you feel that you have discovered something true, something profound and terrible and wonderful.

I hope that might be the experience of a child when she reads Blue Mountain, as Seton’s stories were for me. Ursula K. LeGuin has said, “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.” I hope my child reader sees that my story is asking real questions about loyalty, courage, betrayal, dreams, death and the demands of a community. I hope, as she journeys with Tuk toward Blue Mountain, the world opens up to her a little.

I hope she peeks up from her book and nods.



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