Writing for Relief with Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis’s novel No Safe Place (which you can begin reading on Figment for a limited time here) is about survival and strength. The story follows 15-year-old Abdul as he flees his native Baghdad, lands at a makeshift refugee camp in Calais, France, and struggles to find a safer life by illegally migrating to England. Along the journey, he meets a handful of other teenagers in equally desperate situations. Ellis is the consummate philanthropist: she has donated all of the royalties of her previous work, The Breadwinner Trilogyabout two teenage girls living in war-torn Afghanistan–to charities including Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kids International. We got the chance to ask Ellis about her writing and her philanthropy. Check out the bottom of the post for your chance to have a story read by Ellis!

Many of your books are inspired by philanthropic trips you’ve taken. What inspired No Safe Place?

No Safe Place was inspired by people I have met over the years who have lost their identity papers–and their countries–for reasons beyond their control, who leave their homes in search of some way of surviving with hope and dignity.

Did you have to conduct a lot of research for the four different teenage perspectives in No Safe Place?

I do as much research as possible before writing–so I went to Russia, to Eastern Europe and to Jordan to meet with Iraqi refugees, both as research for this book and for other books.  The characters are made up, but based on stories I heard.

How do you write about heavy issues without allowing your book to become dense?

When we are living through difficult situations, we try to make them as easy as possible for ourselves–by use of humor, distraction, taking action to improve things, and so on. So, even if the situation is dire, we humans try to make ourselves feel better.  It’s the same in stories–the situations may be horrible, but there are almost always places to give the characters–and the reader–a bit of a breathing space before walloping them again.  I think that is especially true for young people, who will do their best to find some way to play.

What made you decide to donate the royalties from your Breadwinner trilogy to charitable organizations?

Why donate?  It’s fun to do something that could make things better. 

Do you believe authors have a responsibility to help alleviate the issues they write about?

I believe people–all people–have a responsibility to leave the planet in better shape than it was in when they found it, using their skills, talents, and passions.  Besides, again–it’s fun.

What inspires you to write about the victimized?

I write more about survivors than about people who are victimized–they may be victimized to begin with, but they work to gain control over their situation, whatever control they can find.  I also write about people who have had to deal with the fallout of bad decisions made by others, usually people with power and money who ought to know better.  Since we have the capacity, as humans, to make really terrible decisions, we also have the capacity for terrific decisions that will lift us all up out of the muck, rather than dragging us further into it.

Inspired by Ellis’s giving spirit? We are too. So here’s your challenge: Look through the stories you’ve written on Figment. Identify a political, social, or other important issue in one of your stories–some issue that’s a concern in the real world. Then find an organization that works to help people dealing with that issue, and include a link to that organization’s website in your description. Does your story feature a girl who is starving herself? Link to the National Eating Disorder Association. Does a young child find himself homeless? Try Women and Children in Need.

After you put a link to the organization of your choice in your story, tag it NoSafePlace. One tagged and linked story will be read and commented on by Deborah Ellis herself!


Girls with grit are fierce, independent, strong young women. They’re girls who face tough situations and sometimes don’t come out on top. They’re girls who work hard, who believe in themselves, and who try to follow their principles.

Groundwood Books’ Girls With Grit series is on Figment because each of these books is about a girl like you, or your sister, or your best friend. We’ll be featuring different books every week, so be sure to check the Figment Features page often!

Meanwhile, we’ve got weekly challenges in the Got Grit? Forum (with five chances to win prizes!) plus an awesome writing contest. What are you waiting for?

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