Tag Archives: Deborah Ellis

The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis


The Cat at the Wall

 I had really high hopes for this book after reading and loving all of Deborah Ellis’s Parvana books and thoroughly respecting her ability to take highly complicated world events and presenting them in a compassionate palatable manner for elementary aged students to digest and benefit from.  The premise of the book intrigued me, a reincarnated 13 year-old-girl comes back as a cat in the middle of Bethlehem and is soon in the middle of a village conflict between Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian’s home.  I wanted to love it, but ended up just liking it and wishing there was more substance.  I was hoping for more understanding of the conflict and the history not just of an arrogant bratty girl, reflecting back on her life as a human now that she is a cat in a volatile region. The book is a fairly easy read as you really have only three main characters that you get to know, the others just transparently breeze through, and the book is only 144 pages and an AR level 4.8.


Clare is an incredibly abrasive teen that bullies students at school, lies to teachers and her parents, constantly berates her sister, steals, cheats, and who is not someone you would want to be around or be like in any way.  So while her dying is sad, in and of itself, when she comes back as a cat with the exact same characteristics, she is still hard to like and root for as a whole.  As a cat, Clare understands all languages and finds herself in a home that is being commandeered by two Israeli soldiers, Simcha and Aaron.  Simcha is an American who has come to Israel, joined the IDF, knows little about the Palestinians and is full of hostility.  Aaron is Israeli and speaks Arabic and has more compassion. Clearly Ellis was trying to show that while both are soldiers their attitudes are vastly different, even if their actions are more or less the same.  While scrounging for food, Clare realizes, with her heightened cat smell, that there are more than just the two soldiers in the small home, there is a boy hiding in a trap door in the floor.  The soldiers are at a loss what to do with this small terrified seven or eight year-old-child who recites the same poem over and over and rocks back and forth.  As the soldiers spy on the neighbors, their presence is uncovered and a stand-off between the angry villagers, the people inside the home and the Israeli army ensues.  What can be done to prevent the loss of life? What can Clare the cat do? What is she willing to do, if anything at all?


The words and sentences are simple, which balances out the flashbacks that could be confusing to students younger than fourth grade.  The story flows between the current situation, Clare’s life as a human, and Clare’s life as a cat before coming to the home with the soldiers and boy.  I like that it isn’t made a black and white issue, but I don’t know if based on the book alone the reader truly understands why the villagers would be upset, how much of a reality it is to be berated by soldiers, to have your home taken over, to have kids being beat by soldiers and the dehumanization of checkpoints.  Ultimately the story is about Clare and if she can change, if she wants to change and can she make a difference in the world, the backdrop is simply the Israel Palestine conflict.  Obviously I would be nervous to introduce the concept of reincarnation in an Islamic school setting, but I have recommended the book to certain students who are mature enough to respect that some people do believe this, that the book is fiction, and are aware of the daily oppression of the Palestinians, and the violence that is a reality for so many.   I think as a teaching tool the book offers a lot in terms of teaching point of view, personification, and organization.


There is violence and the threat of violence, but it is handled respectfully.There is talk of Christianity and Jesus that most students would be fine with.  Reincarnation is present, but played down at the end leaving the door open for interpretation. The human Clare is rather despicable, but she is painted as such and her flaws are not celebrated.


There is a nice question and answer section with the author at the end of the book.

The author’s website: http://deborahellis.com/books/#cat-at-the-wall

An educator’s guide: http://groundwoodbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/9781554984916_guide.pdf

The Breadwinner By Deborah Ellis



The Breadwinner is the first book in Deborah Ellis’ four book series about 11 year-old-Parvana, her friends, and her family in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.  The remarkable thing about this book is that it is a compelling story, that has moments of intensity and reality, yet never falters from being on about a 4th grade reading and comprehension level.  The AR level is 4.5 and as a teacher I taught the book as a novel study to 4th graders, and now as a librarian I presented the book for my Jr. Book Club.  In both cases, after completion, the children are arguing and fighting for the next books in the series, Parvana’s Journey, and then Mud City, and finally My Name is Parvana.  It is not a tempting book on the shelf necessarily, but once you start, it is hard to put down.


The book gives readers a glimpse of how the Taliban changed the day-to-day lives of the Afghani people.  Young Parvana starts out helping her father, a  former History teacher, earn a meager living by reading and writing for the illiterate in the marketplace, and selling odds-and-ends that the family is willing to do without in order to survive.  As a young girl she is allowed to accompany her father into the marketplace, her older sister and mother, however, have not left their home in a year and a half.  When Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, the family is in need of a provider, a breadwinner, and with some of her deceased brother’s clothes, a haircut and some courage, young Parvana becomes Kaseem.  She carries on her father’s work, digs up bones to earn more, and sells items from a tray to keep her family afloat.  In the process she meets an old classmate, Shauzia, who is also disguised as a boy, an old gym teacher, Mrs. Weera, determined to fight back through disseminating journals and magazines, and other characters that bring the horrors and hope of the Afghan people to life.


I like that it doesn’t get too political, which would bog down the story and turn off young readers, and while it presents unfair imprisonment, stadium style punishments, death and pain, it does so in a way that evokes empathy not fear.  It even at times finds a way to stay light-hearted and offer up hope as the reader sees the resilience and determination of these people.

“I’ve been thinking about starting up a little school here,” Mrs. Weera said to Parvana’s surprise.  “A secret school, for a small number of girls, a few hours a week.  you must attend.  Parvana will let you know when.””What about the Taliban?” “The Taliban will not be invited.”


The book is intense at some moments, such as when the father is taken by the police, the girl’s nearly see prisoners having their hands chopped off, and the characters discuss landmines.  But it is on a child’s level, too much description is not offered and for most 3rd graders and up, I think the book is a great dialogue starter about what some people have to endure in the world.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: (There are a lot of resources for this book)

Author’s website and study guide:   http://deborahellis.com/teacher-resources/

Unit study:  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/FREE-The-Breadwinner-Unit-Guide-for-Students-365169

Lesson plan:  http://coolkidlit-4-socialstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/27715927/The%20Breadwinner%20Lesson%20Plan