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Interview with author Deborah Ellis
by Aline Pereira*

Internationally acclaimed author, humanitarian and peace activist, Deborah Ellis has traveled the world to meet with and hear the stories of children affected by poverty, war, racism and illness. Her fiction and non-fiction books give us a glimpse into the lives of children from Afghanistan (The Breadwinner Trilogy), Bolivia (I am a Taxi; Sacred Leaf), the Middle East (Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak) and Southern Africa (The Heaven Shop).

Deborah's latest book, Off To War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children is a collection of interviews with children of Canadian and American soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her next book, Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees, is due out in March, 2009. Royalties from both books are to be donated to the Children in Crisis Fund of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People.

She lives in Simcoe, Ontario.

We first interviewed Deborah Ellis in January 2007, so picking up where we left off…

Since the 1970’s you have devoted yourself both personally and through your work to issues of social justice, equality and peace building. Why did you decide to write for young readers about these issues?

I write books on these themes because they interest me - how the world works, and how we manage to find dignity in it. One of the things that drives me is to continue to find arguments to show that the things we do to change the world actually do change the world (even if sometimes the only evidence we have of this is the knowledge that if we don't do anything, nothing changes).

As for writing mostly for young readers, it sort of happened naturally. I started writting and submiting my work to magazines at an early age. In 1999 Groundwood Books was having a "first novel" contest, so I wrote a book to enter it: and to my surprise, Looking for X ended up as a runner-upper in the Groundwood Twentieth Anniversary First Novel for Children Contest and as a winner of the 2000 Governor General's Literary Award for juvenile English fiction. The middle reader group is an exciting age group, because that's a time when kids are making choices about what kind of person they want to be.

With Off to War, you personalize the effect of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq by interviewing children of Canadian and American forces stationed there. With heavy hearts we read how they face such challenges at home as coping with the absence of a mother or father (in some cases both); fearing that their parent(s) may not return; and learning to be a family again when/if they do. Were your interviewees mostly willing to share their stories, or did you encounter some resistance/fear?

I approached military organizations and groups that support military families; I took out ads in military magazines; I did mass mailings to schools that have military kids - anything I could think of.  The children I eventually talked to were the ones whose parents gave me permission to talk to them.  By the time I did the interviews, they were eager to talk. The families that were undergoing more major struggles likely would not have given me access to their children.

You have said “The challenge [with this book] was to bring forward the kids’ voices … without cluttering the page with my opinion and biases.” Understandably, in Off to War you don’t take sides. You allow the children’s and adolescents’ voices to come through, instead, simply by providing a context to their comments. Given the weight of the subject matter, how hard was it to keep your own views and opinions “out of the way”?

My editor, Shelley Tanaka, was brilliant at keeping me out of the way of the stories.  Whenever I tried to sneak something in that didn't belong, she'd put the big pen through it and remind me that it was the children that the book was about.

How did working on this book affect you emotionally?

It was a powerful experience. It reminded me that we have a lot more work to do if we want to live in a world free of violence and injustice. It was an honor to get to know those children and their families. Some of them were truly wonderful and awe-inspiring.

The children you interviewed offer a range of responses to their parents’ deployment to war, from fully supporting the war and their parents’ role in it to actively participating in anti-war movements. To what extent did you intend to send children a message about the importance of hearing "all voices" and respecting those who hold views different from our own?

I've always believed that the more voices we hear, the more we understand that the world is a complex place, requiring complex solutions. When you choose to work, as I have on several occasions, with the oral history of people, you're bound to have different voices. I think oral history is an incredibly powerful medium because it gives voice to ordinary people in a way that tells them that their experiences matter. There hasn't been a lot of oral history of children's experiences to date, and I think that's something I'd like to keep exploring. I like collecting their stories and finding out who they are, and how they see the world.

Children are the most vulnerable victims of the conflicts that adults are unable or unwilling to resolve, however close to or far from the upheaval and violence they may be living. Some adults use distancing to try and reassure children: “The war is happening very far away. There’s nothing to worry about.” Your books, however, do the exact opposite: they offer children the opportunities to empathize with those experiencing cruelty and pain. In your opinion, what message do we send our children when we distance ourselves from the realities of war?

I think that by doing that we tell them that war is what happens to other people, different people, people not like us, and that it really isn't our business (even  though we are often paying for it). This is a dangerous approach, but, unfortunately, a very common one.

I have read that you were surprised by your interviewees’ apparent lack of imagination about whether the world could do without war. You said: “Most of the kids seemed pretty much to accept war as part of life. Almost like trees, rocks and the corner store.” In what ways do you think we are failing to give our children the tools to imagine a world without war?

We are starting to do a great job of making the environment part of our daily discussions. In my opinion, we could do the same with issues of war and peace, by encouraging kids and families to think about why we have war, and what we can do to create a world where war doesn't happen - at least not on the scale it does now.

In my opinion, injustices, disease and war continue because we haven't yet made it a priority to stop them. How can it be okay, in this day and age, for children to die from drinking bad water? Bad water is fixable. It's fixable to stop the rampages of AIDS. It's possible to live without war. We just have to make these things a priority, and work toward them.

*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor/Producer

Posted November 2008

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interviwee- Susan L. Roth

Susan Roth's photo

By Deborah Ellis:

Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees
(Groundwood, 2009)

Off to War: Voices of Soldiers' Children
(Groundwood, 2008)

Sacred Leaf
(Groundwood, 2007)

I Am A Taxi
(Groundwood, 2006)

Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk About AIDS
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005)

The Heaven Shop (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005)

Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak (Groundwood, 2004)

Mud City
(Groundwood Books, 2003)

A Company of Fools (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002)

Parvana's Journey (Groundwood, 2002)

The Breadwinner (Groundwood, 2001)

Women of the Afghan War (Praeger Books, 2000)

Looking for X
(Groundwood, 1999)

More on PaperTigers:

Read our 2007 interview with the author

More on the Web:

The Power of One Voice (CCBC, 2004)

Deborah Ellis' Profile
(Canadian Review of Materials, 2003)

Interested in Pacific Rim and South Asia-related fiction and nonfiction for adults? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review.

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