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Scottish Independence: Deep Roots

90px-Flag_of_ScotlandAt the outset I would like to establish that I am a Canadian with a Scottish heritage (among other nationalities) who really didn’t know much Scottish history until recently. However, thanks to a family who was very proud of their Scots heritage, I probably knew a little more than the average Canadian. This summer I watched the BBC’s A History of Scotland hosted by Scottish archeologist and journalist, Neil Oliver. The last program with its host’s barely disguised nationalist fervour had just aired on TVO when I heard the news that on October 15, 2012 British PM David Cameron and the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, had signed an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014.

There are a couple of points of contact for me. As intimated, my family history goes back deep into the roots of Scottish history. The Clan Mar, of which Marr is a sept, is one of the seven ancient kingdoms of Scotland. Those roots have planted themselves firmly in my DNA.

Additionally, as a Canadian, I have some experience of separatist movements. In my youth Canadian political news was filled with reports about the Front de Libération Québécois (FLQ), René Lévesque  and the Parti Québécois (PQ), and the 1972 October Crisis when civil liberties were suspended and the army sent into Quebec after the British Ambassador was kidnapped and the provincial Justice Minister kidnapped and later murdered by the FLQ.

I lived through two referendums on Quebec independence in 1980 and 1995. The latter squeaked out a victory for the federalists (those in favour of remaining within Canada). I felt very Mrs. Miniver-like when we said goodbye to our neighbour’s husband (British-born) as he volunteered his time to drive a bus filled with Canadian citizens  to Quebec  to rally Quebec’s citizens to the Federalist cause.

The modern Scottish Independence movement, led by the now-ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament, has a less dramatic history. But the Scots in their own way are as passionate as the nationalist French-Canadians. Whether that bodes greater or less success for the Scottish movement, time will only tell.

These are the reasons for this information hunting and gathering. The results follow.

The Scotsman’s article, “The Elephant We Can’t Forget“,  takes its title from former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau’s famous quote that living next to the US “…  is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”. Like Canada, Scotland has 1/10th the population of its neighbour to the south and is also subject to its larger neighbour’s twitches and grunts. The difference is that Canada is an independent country. Written by Scottish historian Tom Devine the article is an excellent backgrounder on the history of Scotland’s union with Britain and the emergence of the Scottish independence movement.

Written before the signing of the referendum agreement, The National observed in “Scottish Independence Movement Gains Momentum”  that rather than killing Scottish independence, the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament has fueled it. As to what independence would mean for Scotland, David Torrance, author of the Alex Salmond biography, Salmond: Against the Odds, offered, “I tried to think the other day of what Scottish independence as defined by the SNP would actually entail – and all I could come up with was the lowering of corporation tax, which they can’t do just now under the existing settlement, and the removal of nuclear weapons, which would take an awful long time anyway.”

Ewan Crawford, former private secretary to one-time SNP leader John Swinney offered more, “What independence will do, among other things, is give Scotland control of macro-economic policy, full taxation – the opportunity, as the SNP would see it, to create a better and more prosperous society.” 

The EU has taken a dim view of Scottish independence and promises a rocky road for the Scots if they seek to join the EU according to Walter Russell Mead’s article, “Scottish Independence Movement Shot Down by Europe“. Mead writes, “What the Scottish nationalists seem too dim to have figured out is this: The EU is a club of countries, and many countries besides the UK face secession movements. None of the central governments want to encourage breakups because they all fear the fever will spread.” Which leads me to muse, how much strength would the French-Canadian nationalists derive from a break-up in the English mother country? It would certainly be a strong talking point.

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail had some interesting things to say about Scottish independence and Quebec independence. William Johnson, former leader of Alliance Quebec  compares Quebec’s two referendum questions and Scotland’s referendum wording in “Independence Referendum? Scotland has it Right,” and appears to be trying to head off any favourable comparison  between Quebec’s nationalism and Scotland’s.

Another Globe and Mail article, “Scotland Could Thrive on its Own,” says that thanks to Scotland’s North Sea oil it could do very well economically on its own within the EU, and might even prefer the euro to the pound.

The Globe and Mail’s David Saunders explores some of the thorny issues that would bedevil separation from the UK in “A Disunited Kingdom: The Promise and Perils of Scottish Independence.” What about the offspring of this union: the oil, the submarines and the debt in the event of a split?

The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt says that Scottish opinion in favour of independence is at a record high, as high as 49%, in “‘Liberty’s in Every Blow’ as Scots March to Referendum”. She also notes predictions that the vote will be held on June 24, 2014, the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn,when Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II, and gained freedom for the Scots. Too on the nose, perhaps? We will see. One thing I’m learning through my reading is that First Minister Salmond is a canny Scot.

Ms. Delacourt also points out that Scotland is traditionally more left-leaning and having to endure Margaret Thatcher, a PM whom Scots did not vote for, was an important factor in the resurgence of Scottish nationalism.

Recently, former US president Bill Clinton commented on the wider implications of Scottish independence, stating that “… the issue of independence was a “classic case” of identity politics which, would dominate 21st century.

“We’ve got to keep working for common ground all around the world,” he said. “I think the 21st century will be decided by how we handle the identity crisis. How do we keep our special identity? You’re going to see this, you’ve got the Scottish referendum here. Classic case.”

I was interested to see what the New York Times had to say on the subject. They noted that Mr. Salmond had wanted to include the option for greater powers for Scotland within the union (devo-max, as some articles labelled it) in the referendum, but had been forced to limit the question to a “yes-no” on independence.

So where does that leave me?  I have a lot more information than when I started. I entered the search with my sympathies aligned with the independence movement, and I remain of that mind, largely because Scotland is a unique country with its own long history and unique identity. I also believe Scots deserve a representative government of the people, by the people and for the people, as the Scots who settled and influenced America believed. I also recognize that there are many issues at stake that the Scottish people must weigh. I will remain an interested observer, whose ancestral ties ensure that a piece of her heart remains in Scotland.

December 1, 2012 updates: The BBC reports that 143,000 Scots have signed the Yes, Scotland independence petition. Alex Salmond aims to have 1,000,000 signatures by 2014.

In the November 30, 2012 Montreal Gazette, Harry McGrath, a Canadian now living in Scotland, wrote an opinion piece entitled,  An independent Scotland could look a lot like…Canada?  Sadly, under our current government, it’s the Canada of the past.


Image attribution: By Cayetano – (Scotland flag  Uploaded by Smooth_O) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Remembrance Day: A Family Story

In January 2005 I received an email from Veteran’s Affairs Canada (VAC) saying that George Wilkinson wanted to contact the person who had posted a picture of Lorne Marr on the Virtual Memorial website. In August 1944 Dad’s brother, Lorne, was killed in France and George is my cousin. I had posted Lorne’s picture after seeing an unfamiliar picture on the site, taken in England. This message led to many fascinating emails from George. He kept me on the edge of my seat as I waited for the next installment as George was able, writing on his lunch hour, outlining his adventures and the contacts that had led to new information about our uncle, particularly during his time in service, beginning in 1939.

A particularly interesting part of George’s quest was his search for the young boy that Lorne, a dispatch rider, had hit while on his motorcycle – in Jamaica, George’s mother had told him. George learned that the picture that had appeared on the VAC website in 2004 had been taken from a book, The Maple Leaf Army in Britain. He managed to locate the book and discovered that the accident had occurred in England, not Jamaica. He also learned that the “boy” in the picture, Peter Hunter, now a retired police officer, was the child Lorne had hit and befriended. Among the surprises awaiting him was that Peter had been hunting unsuccessfully for members of Lorne’s family since he’d retired in 1992. He’d concluded that Lorne must be an only child, ironic since Dad was the oldest of eight!

Peter had wanted to make sure that Lorne was remembered, even if he had no family. He attended a writing workshop and wrote two letters to Lorne. The workshop leader was so impressed that the letters were read as a paradigm for a writing contest on the BBC.

George also learned that a compilation of day-to-day memories of the Argyll and Sutherland regiment soldier, Black Yesterdays, included a photo of Lorne. The book was out of print, but George was thrilled when he was given a copy shortly after we started corresponding. In March 2005, Mike Strobel, a Toronto Sun columnist, interviewed George, featuring Lorne’s story. In June of the same year, George and his lovely wife Darlene, flew to Britain to meet Peter Hunter and then travelled with Peter for an emotion-filled visit to Lorne’s grave in Calais.

There is so much to this story I can only touch on a very small part of it. Peter posted an account, “Lorne – A Canadian Soldier” on the BBC site, “The People’s War.”* Another cousin gave George Uncle Lorne’s medals. A dispatch rider who answered directly to Lorne confirmed George’s research, particularly the circumstances of Lorne’s death in a “fog of war” incident. Mike Strobel told George “he’d be crazy” if he didn’t write a book about his quest. All this in 2005, the Year of the Veteran.

George did go on to write the book. You can read the story of his quest to find out what had happened to our uncle in Peter’s Argyll. Every November 11th, George still attends a Remembrance Day Service and remembers his  journey of discovery to uncover the story of the uncle who had taken hold of his imagination and captured a piece of his heart.

*There are a couple of errors in Peter’s account. There were eight children, not six, as noted above, and Lorne had two brothers, not one, who survived the war, my father and my Uncle Dave. 

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The Soul of a Nation

I’m so glad I heard this Sunday Edition interview with Jim Wallis. Wallis is a Christian writer, political activist and the founder of Sojourners. He has been a spiritual advisor to both President  Bush and Obama.

He noted that poverty was not an issue in this campaign. In Washington it isn’t an issue, but he believes the country is ready for a new engagement with this issue.  More people have fallen below the poverty line than has been the case for 50 years.

Wallis said that a wide range of church representatives met with Obama. They stated that the Bible does not say, “As you’ve done to the middle class,” but “As you’ve done to the least of these.” The President knew the text. They told him he must not make cuts that would hurt the poor. While he didn’t make any commitment at that time, he did follow their advice. Wallis was later told that these provisions would not have been made without their input.

Addressing the question of why Obama, who had been a community organizer and entered politics to help the disadvantaged, hasn’t focused more on the poor, he noted that David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that the political process has become bitterly partisan, divisive, and obstructive. They don’t try to solve problems;  they blame the other side. They don’t govern; they’re always running, trying to win. A senator told him that he has to raise $20,000 a day. One of Obama’s people said they didn’t realize how really broken the system was until they got there nor did they appreciate how much money controls Washington.

Wallis noted with regret to a class of college students that climate change had not been mentioned in the campaign, an issue that will likely influence their children and grandchildren the most. Energy companies control energy infrastructure.  Regulations on the environment and the financial markets have been eroded. Regulations are not in place as they used to be to watch over the behaviour of the financial markets because those who pay for the elections had regulations removed that would have prevented the meltdown of the financial system.

This election demonstrated that it is no longer white males who control America. This fact will cause Americans to rethink what kind of country they want. The fact that the poor were scarcely mentioned by the media in this campaign is a moral indictment of the media. The Biblical prophets all said a nation’s integrity is primarily determined by how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable. They become the sign of whether we are  committed to all God’s children  If we are leaving out the least of these, we are making a fundamental mistake about  the soul of a nation.

Now that Obama has won a second term, Wallis’s message to the President is that he must not reduce the deficit in ways that increase poverty. He must also pass immigration reform.

Sojourner’s polling shows that people do care about the issue of poverty, which is fundamentally an issue of broken social contracts in America. The country is ready for that conversation, he believes. The Obama administration did make decisions that benefited low income people but they didn’t talk about it as a moral issue. Wallis hopes that in the second term they will make it a moral issue and that the leadership will find a path to fiscal sustainability that is not at the expense of  the poorest and most vulnerable.

I urge you to listen to the full interview. You can find it here: http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/shows/2012/11/09/jim-wallis-on-us-election/

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By Request

A while ago my cousin said he’d been drinking Rush Limbaugh’s Kool-Aid (his words, although I managed an LOL Freudian “Kook-Aid” typo in the first draft) and asked me why I favoured Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. Since we’re down to the wire and since I have an extra hour this weekend, I’m going to use it to answer my cousin’s question.

The observant among my readers might note I’ve used the Canadian spelling of “favoured.” Neither I nor my cousin are American citizens, but like many Canadians with an interest in politics, we follow the American political scene.

A large part of the delay in answering my cousin is that there are so many reasons for opposing Mitt Romney, I can’t begin to touch on them all. I’ve given myself an hour for research (I don’t write off the top of my head), writing and revision (I’m of the “a good piece is not written, it is rewritten and rewritten and rewritten” school of writing). So let’s see what I can cover, in no particular order, given these constraints.

1. Romney’s record as Governor. Thank goodness Obama is finally calling Mitt Romney to account on his record as Governor of Massachusetts.  Under Romney, the state was 47th in job creation, the infrastructure had been neglected, and it has been said that he was away from the state more often than he was there during his last year as Governor. Comments such as these don’t inspire confidence:

“His economic record was uninspired. They never developed an economic strategy nor implemented a coherent set of initiatives that would improve the state’s business climate.” 

“People had very high hopes for him as governor. He’s extremely bright, talented, and involved in business. In the end, he showed no loyalty to the state he was elected to run.”

2. Lies Mitt Romney told us.  Even after Chrysler’s president denied Mitt Romney’s claim that Jeep was going to be sold to the Italians and jobs shipped off to China, Romney has continued to run the ad with the spurious information designed to mislead and frighten American voters.  I have to include Business Insider’s Mitt Romney Has Been Telling A Huge Whopper About The Auto Industry, And His Campaign Is Finally Paying For It.

3. “Trickle down economics is bunk.Or as I once heard, that’s the problem; it just comes down in a trickle. The middle class is contracting while the wealthy become wealthier. The rich should pay their fair share. And how objective is a multi-millionaire on this matter anyway?

4. Win-at-any-cost GOP practices: “Even now, many Republicans are assembling teams to intimidate voters at polling places, to demand photo ID where none is required, and to cast doubt on voting machines or counting systems whose results do not go their way.”

5. Romney’s denial of Climate Change. Hurricane Sandy isn’t the only indicator. Arctic ice is melting at a pace that exceeds the expectations of the most pessimistic climate change scientist. Nonetheless, I can’t resist throwing this post-Sandy zinger in.

6. Romney said in the past that he would not fund FEMA. I’m sure he’s distancing himself from that position now, or at least ignoring it, as he has changed so many of his policies. Which leads me to…

7. Would the real Mitt Romney please stand up? A corollary to the win-at-any-cost tactics, Mitt has been roadrunner-racing to the centre on a number of issues in order to win votes.

8. Romney’s Ryan’s Economic Plan would be a disaster. No one says it  better than Robert Reich.

9. There is so much more. However, I’ve gone way over my budgeted time. I know I’m open to criticism that I’ve relied heavily on Robert Reich. Shall we say that for today he’s my Rush Limbaugh? I’m not sure how that works as I can see very little comparison. Anyway, it’s my post and I’ll use who/whom I wanna. I’m going to give Reich the final word with this summary of Mitt Romney’s world view. That alone is enough for me!

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My Name is Parvana by Deborah Ellis

I was delighted this summer when Groundwood Books offered me an advance copy of Deborah Ellis’s soon-to-be released sequel to the Breadwinner series, My Name is Parvana. Deborah Ellis had spoken at our Librarian’s PD last spring on the day she had just finished her changes and had submitted the book to the publisher. I had been looking forward to reading the upcoming book ever since. To have the opportunity to read it before its release was wonderful!

It arrived in the mail on Friday and I wasted no time starting to read this much-anticipated book, finishing it the same day. The book begins with the now 15-year-old Parvana in custody refusing to answer the questions of  foreign soldiers (probably American). We do not know why she is undergoing questioning or why she won’t answer their questions. We soon learn that she is under suspicion of being a terrorist, but still she refuses to answer their questions.

The early chapters alternate between Parvana in custody and flashing back to the story of the school that her mother had started. The ever-enterprising Parvana had put a lot of work into preparing this school for its opening. She showed an inclination toward architecture but wasn’t so sure about settling down to her studies after the years spent  fending for herself and her family during the Taliban rule. The book also alludes to time spent in the refugee camps with her family before the school was built. This walled school housed them and was their current refuge.

The book also delves into family relationships. She continues to have a difficult relationship with her mother and Nooria, the sister her mother favours, in spite of Parvana’s sacrifice and hardship to keep the family alive that forms the plot of  the earlier books. It also chronicles the ongoing struggle of women and girls to obtain an education in Afghanistan and the continual threats to which the school, its teachers and the students are subjected.

Deborah Ellis has skilfully used flashback to heighten the readers’ interest in this compelling story. The reasons Parvana is in custody and why she is acting as she is, are gradually revealed. At the same time, the use of this device fills in what has happened since the last book. The reader moves forward in anticipation of the next development in this story until the exciting moment when the two stories converge.

The book’s conclusion is true to both the country of Afghanistan and the character of Parvana.

My Name is Parvana confirms Parvana as one of the great characters of children’s literature. I can hardly wait to get a copy for the library! The students are going to love it!

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Take that Canadian Flag off Your Backpack

Under the Harper government Canada’s international reputation has suffered over the last few years. It has reached a critical point when Canada is being called a villain”  at the Rio Summit. 

Commenting on Canada’s refusal to contribute to an IMF fund should an unstable world economy threaten global (including Canadian) economic markets, Geoffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail:

Where, except on the Conservative backbench, would one get someone like Pierre Poilievre, MP? He said: “This Prime Minister will not force hard-working Canadian taxpayers to bail out sumptuous euro welfare-state countries and the wealthy bankers that lend to them.” Here is blind ideology blended with profound parochialism of the kind that is giving Canada a well-deserved reputation for being increasingly an outlier, except when it comes to military interventions.     Canada is ‘back’ on the world stage? Hardly

In Canada’s international reputation slipping under Harper, Andy Radia commented:

 At this week’s G20 summit in Mexico, Canada’s delegation — led by Harper and finance minister Jim Flaherty — is but a bit player with little or no influence. …

It seems that Canada has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse when it comes to international reputation and influence.

In Rio it was suggested to CBC reporter, Connie Watson, that she should take the Canadian flag off her backpack and replace it with an American flag. The proud Maple Leaf that once opened hearts and doors is now closing them.

Canadians should hang their heads in shame that they voted in such a government. It does not represent the views of Canadians, nor is it how we want to be portrayed.

Image used under Creative Commons from Spatial Mongrel

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An Afternoon with Deborah Ellis

Lucky me! On Friday I had the enjoyable experience of hearing Deborah Ellis, author of The Breadwinner series set in Taliban Afghanistan and many other books for children and young adults, speak at our librarian’s PD. I took notes so I could share this wonderful opportunity with others, including a few jealous colleagues!

Trip to Afghanistan

Deborah Ellis returned to Afghanistan last year, travelling with two women associated with the organization, Women for Women. Her reaction to the current situation in this country is two-fold. She experienced rage, disappointment, and discouragement at the ongoing government corruption. Obtaining any kind of a permit requires money on the side. More disturbing than this petty corruption is government concessions to the right wing. There are women’s shelters in Afghanistan, but a woman must apply to a panel of five men and submit to a virginity test to determine to her worthiness. Deborah observed that people often hold on to the old, tired ways when threatened.

However, the new generation gives her hope. Deborah Ellis said that these Afghan young people, who remember being locked in their homes with their mothers, are grabbing hold of any opportunities, be they sports or education, doing three or four years of school in one year. They never know when they might lose these opportunities, so they experience their freedom to the full and pack as much in as they can. There is also a sense of solidarity; they are in this together. A free press does exist in Afghanistan. Young people are also embracing the new technology and many have cell phones. There is a women’s soccer team, although those who play are subject to criticism that it is not appropriate for girls to be running about and getting sweaty, that it is immodest.

Sadly, women are still stoned and forced marriages still occur. Deborah told of a young 13 or 14-year-old girl who resisted a forced marriage with an old man. She was adamant that she was not going to marry him.  She sought help from the authorities, who did nothing.

This girl had sent a song request to a young DJ who became concerned with her plight. He said he would help her and she ended up running away with him. Along the way they stopped at a restaurant. The owner asked questions and upon learning  the circumstances, he called the police. Even though she had not violated Afghan law, she was put in jail for seven years. In fact, you can be put in jail, even if you have committed no crime under the Afghan criminal code.

Sad to say, she is better off in jail with girls who are incarcerated for similar reasons, than on her own. Women cannot own property or rent. Deborah emphasized the importance of economic power for girls and women.

Deborah spoke of a teacher of a women’s literacy class, who found that initially the women needed to talk. All that had happened to them flowed out; this was their first opportunity to release their distress. After a while less time was spent talking and more on the lessons that were to empower them. One woman commented that now that she knows how to read she’ll be able to find things out for herself.

Similarly, a community centre had a library consisting of 10 shelves of books. A young man said that with these 10 shelves they can now solve all their problems. Imagine!

Deborah was asked if she has a bodyguard when she travels to trouble spots. She does not, she generally travels alone. In Afghanistan she was accompanied by the two women from Women for Women. She is more concerned with the risk to the people she talks to, and allows them to frame their own terms, i.e., how much they reveal about their identity. She said that as a woman she can easily slide into the world of women and children in a way a man could not.

Deborah Ellis, a long-time peace activist, asks people to consider the possibility of finding other ways to settle conflict apart from war. She noted that when you ask primary students if it is possible to eliminate war, many will say yes. By the time they are in the junior grades their opinions are divided and in high school most say no. She commented that we are failing to inspire a different vision of the future and we need to bring home to children the effects of these decisions.

Her Writing

Deborah Ellis also spoke of her writing and her books. She said her books begin with a question: “What would I do if my best friend were accused of murder? “What would it be like to be a girl in Taliban Afghanistan?” She also noted that her interview-based writing follows in the tradition of the late Studs Terkel, whom she admires. Favourite books include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and anything by Jean Little.

She spoke specifically to some books. I will outline her comments below:

Off to War:  Deborah Ellis said this book of interviews with children whose parents were fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq was her most challenging book to write because of her anti-war views. However, she said she that in talking with these children she was reminded that every group, including the military, consists of individuals. She noted that books she would have liked to write would have been Children of War, Children of the Taliban, and Children of the Iraqi Army.

No Ordinary Day: This junior-level book was written to benefit The Leprosy Mission. She noted that we have the ability to wipe out leprosy, but the funding is lacking.

True Blue: This more recent book looks at how we find courage. While Casey knew her own mind from a young age and had determined her path, Jess was not equipped to be on her own. She had no compass, no inner strength. Deborah Ellis also revealed that she had been a camp counsellor and asked herself, “What if I had lost one of the campers?” (Elsewhere Deborah Ellis said, “Courage interests me – when we have it, when we don’t, and how we make the decision to be brave or cowardly.”)

Bifocal: This book, written with Eric Walters, was based on a terrorist incident in 2006. Students at a high school in Mississauga, Ontario were arrested on suspicion of terrorism, although the charges were later dropped. The authors wanted to explore the effect of such an event on a school. She said she and Eric Walters visited the same school so that their setting would match and exchanged chapters as they wrote the book.  She wrote Haroon’s story and Eric wrote Jay’s.  The shared authorship worked well for them, but was hard on their editor!

Upcoming Books: I was very excited to learn that a fourth book in the Breadwinner series, My Name is Parvana, will be coming out in September.  She had just finished her edit the day she spoke with us. She is also working on a book on the Nuremberg trials, with a particular focus on accountability.

At the end, I took the opportunity to get True Blue autographed and to tell her how much recent Grade 6 classes have enjoyed The Breadwinner. Like many kids their age, they’re not really interested in other cultures, so the teacher has to do a persuasive introduction before they begin. However, once they get into the story, they love it and a number go on to read the entire series. She smiled broadly when I told her. Her smile told me that’s where her heart is, reaching young people with her stories.

I was unable to find a good up-to-date biography of Deborah Ellis, but in this short videotaped interview in 2010 she talks about a recent book, No Safe Place, and the impact she hopes to have on young people through her writing.
A longer, more recent video interview with Deborah Ellis in December 2011 is available here.