Quill and Quire

Deborah Ellis

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Where the money goes

It takes a certain kind of person to donate close to $450,000 to charities and relief organizations simply because they can. And if that person is not wealthy, if the money could have a huge impact on their own quality of life, then it’s all the more impressive. But when presented with the opportunity to help those she had written about – Afghani women and children, and the people of AIDS-ravaged Africa – award-winning children’s author Deborah Ellis proved that she clearly is that kind of altruist. Listening to Ellis speak, it doesn’t even seem to occur to her that she could have done anything else. “Once you see how great the need is, it just makes sense to do what you can do. And this was something I could do,” she explains.

Ellis, 42, who still works as a mental health counsellor in Toronto, has been involved in activism since she was a teenager looking for a way to relieve the boredom of growing up in small-town Paris, Ontario. In 1999, Ellis travelled to Pakistan to volunteer at an Afghani refugee camp. What she saw there and the people she spoke to inspired four books: Women of the Afghan War, an adult non-fiction title from which royalties were donated to the American organization Help the Afghan Children, and a series of children’s books that have become known as the Breadwinner trilogy.

The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young, fictional character who cuts off her hair and poses as a boy so that she can have freedom of movement and support her family in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Published by Groundwood Books in 2000, it was based on a story told to Ellis by a woman in the refugee camp. The other novels in the trilogy, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, continue the story of Parvana and her friends.

The royalties from the first two books of the Breadwinner trilogy were donated to a Canadian organization called Women for Women in Afghanistan. To date, Ellis’s publisher estimates that her donations to the group, which helps fund education and quality-of-living initiatives for women and girls in the war-torn country, total approximately $400,000, accounting for all of Ellis’s North American royalties. Mud City’s royalties are being donated to Street Kids International. It is estimated that the book has raised $30,000 for the organization since publication.

Turning her focus from central Asia to AIDS-stricken Africa, Ellis once again went on the road. The pandemic has decimated the young adult and middle-aged population, leaving behind a growing number of orphans and a higher percentage of elderly people. Interviewing children in some of the worst-hit areas of southeastern Africa – Malawi and Zambia – Ellis was struck not only by the horrendous ordeal the people were living (and in many cases dying) through, but also by their amazing capacity for human kindness and strength.

“There are kids in Africa who have lost everybody, and they meet up with older people who have also lost everybody, and the older woman will say, ‘I have no children, you will be my child,’ and they just kind of look after each other and form new families,” she says. “And I just find that incredibly exciting and awe-inspiring. It makes me think that we’re much better as a human species than we give ourselves credit for, and knowing that, I think that we can do a lot better than we do.”

Her most recent YA novel, The Heaven Shop, deals with the situation in Africa head on, taking the reader into the life of an AIDS orphan in search of her remaining family, and the unbelievable trials she must endure on her journey. Royalties from the book will go to the international aid organization UNICEF. Her next project (which, like The Heaven Shop, will be published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside), also builds on her African research, and will be an oral history of children affected by AIDS. It is due for release in the spring, with royalties being donated to an as-yet-unnamed charity.

Ellis attributes her generosity and her determination to confront the kinds of situations that most of us can barely watch on the news, in part, to simple curiosity. “I see courage as a choice that we make, and often we’re just not up to making it in the best way that we know how,” she says. “So I’m interested in what drives people to decide to be courageous, and why sometimes we just can’t do it.”