By Daryl Grabarek
The thematic grouping of print and multimedia resources allows students to dig deeply into topics and presents opportunities to gather facts, explore different points of view, and to ask questions. This selection of titles offers a look at contemporary life in a country that’s often in the news.
In Deborah Ellis’s conversations with the Kids of Kabul (Groundwood, 2012; Gr 7-10) themes quickly emerge: the brutality of the Taliban; the absence of fathers and husbands; the lack of adequate, safe housing; the repression of girls and women; the dearth of economic opportunities; and the extreme conditions of refugee camps. Yet also plainly heard is hope: that attitudes will change, opportunities will arise, and the next generation of Afghan leaders will be able to rebuild the country.
In this excerpt from the book, Faranoz, age 14, talks about what she has learned in a neighbor’s home where widows and their daughters are taught to read: “The first day of classes, many women were crying because their lives are so hard and no one ever asks them about that. They don’t get to just come and sit and talk with other women. They are expected to just live their lives and be quiet. But the teacher here started to ask them and that’s when they started to cry. ….
After a year of learning to read, were are all different people. We can stand up straight and read out the words we have written in loud clear voice. We laugh more than we cry. …I used to think if only I could read, then I would be happy. But now I just want more! I want to read about poets and Afghan history and science about places outside Afghanistan.”
Mustala, age 13, lives in poverty and attends a school where he receives food; it’s often the only place he eats. “I live with my grandfather and grandmother. We are really poor. My grandparents don’t work. We have no money for soap, so I am often dirty and wearing dirty clothes. I would like to be better dressed, so when people see me coming they will think, ‘Oh this boy is important, look at his clothes. He must be somebody special.’
“We need to study to make a good country out of Afghanistan….At school I have learned there are better ways to do things than all this war, war, war, all the time. It’s the young generation that will change that.”
The young Afghans whose words are recorded in this book range in age from age 10 to 17. For each selection, the author offers background information specific to the excerpt. For example, Ellis prefaces one teen’s story of her mother’s life in prison with information on the incarceration of women in Afghanistan. Other topics covered included exchange program opportunities, women’s sports, arranged marriages, opium addiction, and Islamic art. Most of the excerpts are also accompanied by a black-and-white photo.
The conversations in Kids of Kabul were conducted in 2011. Out of Ellis’s first visit to Afghanistan in 1996 came her acclaimed fictional “Breadwinner Trilogy:” The Breadwinner (2001), Parvana’s Journey (2003), and Mud City (2004, all Groundwood; Gr 5 -8). In the first title, Parvana’s family is living in one room in Kabul. When her father is arrested, the 11-year-old, her sisters, and their mother struggle to provide for themselves. With no male in the house (except a baby), the women can’t leave their home. Dressed as a boy, Parvana ventures outside to buy food and to earn money. The other titles in the trilogy follow the girl, her family, and her friend, Shauzia, as they leave Kabul and travel through the war-torn country. In the suspenseful (stand alone) sequel to the series, My Name is Parvana (Groundwood, October 2012; Gr 5-8), the protagonist, now 15, has been detained by U.S. troops as a suspected terrorist. Why she is being held-and how she was detained-slowly unfold through flashbacks and the teen’s inner monologues.
In her letter to readers in this publisher’s sample of My Name is Parvana, Ellis writes, “Books can help us remember what we have in common.” It’s a good place to start when discussing the author’s titles with your students. Ask them what it is they share with the children and teens in the author’s books. The differences may seem obvious, but consider them as well.
What are some of the themes that your students uncovered in Kids of Kabul and where and how are echoed in the novels? What details imbue these stories with their particular poignancy? Discuss the impact of war on ordinary citizens and on children.
The voices of other young Afghans can also be heard in Tony O’Brien and Mike Sullivan’s Afghan Dreams (Bloomsbury, 2008; Gr 4 Up). Striking full-page color photos of young people in their homes, at school, and work are included as well as expansive scenes from dry, dusty villages to snow-capped mountains. Assign students individual excerpts from the book aloud while sharing the photos. What information can they glean from these photos and quotes, and how has it added to their knowledge of the country and its people? That many of these children can only dream of attending school is a fact that should generate a spirited discussion in the classroom.
Introduce another contemporary perspective on Afghanistan with Rafal Gerszak’s Beyond Bullets (with Dawn Hunter, Annick, 2011; Gr 6 Up). Subtitled A Photo Journal of Afghanistan, the book is filled with powerful full-page (and smaller) color images taken as an “embed” with U.S. military in Afghanistan. The author relates some harrowing experiences, and includes a few photos taken on missions with American soldiers, but most of the discussions center on the culture and the pictures are primarily of citizens going about their daily lives.
In an afterword, Gerszak comments, “When I first went to Afghanistan…I really knew nothing of the country. But after living there on my own and spending more time exploring and learning about the place, I grew closer to the Afghans I met. I felt more a part of their community, more aware of their culture. I wanted people outside of Afghanistan to look at my photos and feel that way, too-for them to understand that there’s so much more than a war going on there. Sidebars provide information on Islam, hajj, the ethnic groups of Afghanistan, and other topics, offering essential background on the country.
What insight does Beyond Bullets provide about the protagonist’s detention in My Name is Parvana? Does it provide any insight? What did your students know about the country or the war before listening to or reading these books? What did they learn about it from these titles? (Teachers can ask their students to jot down notes before and after reading selected books.) For up-to-date information on Afghanistan, send them to national news sites, or those geared specifically to students, such as Time for Kids.
Grouping fiction, nonfiction, and multimedia resources on a particular topic offer teachers and students a broad, multilayered approach to a subject. The titles mentioned here are especially appropriate for literacy and social studies classes exploring current events, life in other cultures, an author’s process, point-of-view, and/or photojournalism. While many classrooms have long embraced an approach that incorporates a variety of resources in different formats, teachers working to embed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) into their curriculum will find these titles, suggested activities, and appended resources align with those standards.
Eds. note: The royalties from the sale of Deborah Ellis’s books benefit the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
The suggested activities above reference a number of CCSS. The list below is a sampling.
W.5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge though investigation of different aspects of a topic.
W.5.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational text to support analysis, reflection, and research.
SL.5.l. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually quantitatively)…to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
R1.6.9 Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another
SL 6.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions…Come to discussions prepared having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to prove and reflect on ideas under discussion….
SL.6.2 Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats…and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
RI.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RI.7.2. Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
RI.7.3. Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text.
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