The Breadwinner was written in the year 2000 about life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule in the late 1990s. The courageous protagonist is 11-year-old Parvana, who will do anything to help her family who are living in dire circumstances in Kabul, the capital city. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they imposed strict laws based on their interpretation of Islam that forbade women from leaving the house without a male attendant and forbade them from going to school and working outside the home. At 11, Parvana is young enough that she can go outside to help her father and fetch water, even though she is a girl, but she must make sure she is covered with her chador. If a woman ever leaves the house, they would have to do so with a male companion while wearing a burqa that fully covers them and makes it difficult to walk and see. Women are not allowed to go in shops, and shopkeepers risk beatings if they serve a woman. This level of control keeps women entirely dependent and subservient to men for even the most basic necessities.
Parvana's father taught high school before being wounded in a bombing and losing part of his leg. Because of this, Parvana accompanies him outside the house to help him walk, such as when they go to the market where her father attempts to sell anything of value that they own to earn enough money for food. The literacy rate is very low in Afghanistan and Parvana's father also uses his skills to read and write letters for people who cannot. At the beginning of the story, Parvana's mother, her 16-year-old sister Nooria, her younger sister Maryam, and her baby brother Ali have all been shut in their small one room apartment for the year and a half since the Taliban takeover.
One night, the Taliban bursts into the family's tiny apartment and forcefully kidnaps Parvana's father, beating the family and destroying their belongings in the process. As an educated person, the Taliban view Parvana's father as a threat to their authority, so they lock him up without any charges in harsh conditions. The family is helpless without him as the women are forbidden to work or leave the house. As the food runs out, Parvana makes the difficult decision to cut off her hair so that she can disguise herself and pass for a boy. As a boy, Parvana is free to walk the streets, buy their necessities, and do odd jobs to help make ends meet. One day, Parvana meets her friend from school, Shauzia, who is also posing as a boy to work for her family. Together they sell tea and run errands for people in the market. Shauzia is forced to work for her family but they will not allow her an education. She dreams of saving enough money to travel to the sea and from there to Paris, France. She carries around a picture of a field of lavender flowers and dreams that one day she can escape her life in Afghanistan. Shauzia and Parvana do all of their work together and support one another along the way. They even perform the gruesome and traumatic job of digging up human bones from bombed out buildings to sell to a bone collector. As their friend Mrs. Weera says, "These are unusual times. They call for ordinary people to do unusual things, just to get by.”
Parvana and Shauzia are out working one day when they see crowds going to the soccer stadium. Thinking they can sell gum and cigarettes to the spectators, they follow the crowd inside. They discover to their horror that it is not a soccer game, but the Taliban doling out barbaric punishments to prisoners by cutting off their hands. After witnessing such brutality, Parvana is depressed for days. Her mother decides it is time for the family to flee Kabul for the north. Parvana's mother arranges for sister Nooria to get married so that the family can move to Mazar e-Sharif, which is not yet under Taliban control. There they think they will be free to continue their education and work. However, Parvana heartbreakingly refuses to go with her family. She fears that if her father is ever let out of prison, he will not be able to find them if they are all gone. The family say a sad farewell and Parvana is left in the care of the incomparable Mrs. Weera, a hardy ex field-hockey coach, who, even under her burqa, exudes determination.
One day while out working, Parvana is caught in the rain. She ducks into a building to wait it out and discovers a terrified and shaking young woman. Her name is Homa and she reveals that her hometown of Mazar e-Sharif has fallen to the Taliban. Homa's entire family was killed by the invading Taliban and she had to flee for her life. Fearing that her family is also killed, Parvana falls into a deep depression.
Parvana's hopes are restored when her father is surprisingly released from prison. The cruel Taliban leave him without his cane in the streets. Kind men take him back to his home. Parvana's father arrives in terrible condition. He has been badly malnourished and beaten while in jail. Mrs. Weera and Parvana slowly nurse him back to health.
As Parvana's father heals, he and Parvana make plans to flee Kabul and find their missing family. They believe the family could be in refugee camps outside of Mazar-e-Sharif. At the same time, Mrs. Weera and Homa plan to travel to Pakistan to work in a refugee camp for Afghans and help other women like themselves. Shauzia also leaves as she embarks on her dream of getting to France by befriending some nomads who allow her to come with them out of Kabul. Before their departure, Parvana plants some flowers where she used to sell her wares in the market, symbolizing hope for Afghanistan. As Parvana and her father set off to find her mother, sisters, and baby brother, Shauzia and Parvana make a pact that in twenty years they will meet once again at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Parvana leaves Kabul with her father and as she looks upon the mountain rising above the city that they nicknamed "Mount Parvana", she wonders what the future holds.