Eleven-year-old Parvana sits with Father in the market. He’s reading a letter for a customer. Until a year ago, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, Parvana was a happy student. She wasn’t particularly concerned when the Taliban closed schools and insisted girls couldn’t learn. She figured the Taliban would let them go back soon, but her older sister, Nooria, was distraught. A year later, nothing has changed. Parvana isn’t even supposed to be out of the house, but since Father is missing part of his lower leg and sold his prosthesis, he needs her help to walk. Though Parvana’s family used to be well off, the constant bombing of Kabul over the last 20 years has made her family increasingly poorer. Now, all six of them live in a single room.
Father suggests they end their day, so Parvana gathers the household items they’re trying to sell and helps him walk back home. The road is bumpy and many buildings have been destroyed. Nooria remembers when Kabul had traffic lights and cinemas. At home, Mother and Nooria are cleaning out the cupboard. Since they can’t work or go to school, they busy themselves cleaning. Parvana resents this, as she’s responsible for fetching water—and cleaning uses a lot of water. Though they have neighbors, Parvana hasn’t met them. The Taliban encourages neighbors to spy on each other, so it’s unsafe for Parvana to befriend any neighbor children. Mother gives Parvana a pile of items to sell, including Parvana’s good red shalwar kameez. Parvana is incensed, but when Mother puts Hossain’s clothes back in the cupboard, Parvana drops her attitude. Hossain was her older brother; a land mine killed him when he was 14.
After supper, Father tells the story of Malali. During the war with the British, Malali inspired the Afghan troops to victory by waving her veil like a flag and reciting poetry. Father insists that Afghanistan’s women are the bravest in the world. Just as Mother and Nooria start to clean up, several Taliban soldiers burst in and arrest Father. When the soldiers look through the cupboard and get dangerously close to Father’s hidden English books, Parvana hits them. They leave. Once five-year-old Maryam and toddler Ali fall asleep, Mother, Nooria, and Parvana clean up and try to sleep. Parvana suggests they light a lamp in case Father needs to find his way home, but Mother refuses.
The next morning, Mother and Parvana set off for the prison. As they walk, Mother shows people a photo of Father. At the prison, Parvana remembers Malali and helps her mother yell at the soldiers. They beat Mother until Parvana agrees to go. When they get home, Parvana realizes that Mother’s feet are bleeding—she hasn’t been out since the Taliban arrived. Nooria tends to Mother while Maryam washes Parvana’s blistered feet. Mother cries and lies on a toshak for days. The food runs out, and since Parvana and Nooria are too afraid to fetch water, they stop washing Ali’s diapers. On the fourth day, Nooria tells Parvana to buy food in the market.
Women can’t enter shops, but Parvana isn’t sure if she counts as a woman yet. If she stays outside, though, she might get in trouble for not wearing a burqa. She buys nan and then heads for a produce stand. A Taliban soldier shouts at Parvana, so she runs and rams into a woman carrying a toddler. The woman turns out to be Mrs. Weera, a former gym teacher. Mrs. Weera invites herself to Parvana’s house to convince Mother to work on a magazine. As soon as she sees the situation, Mrs. Weera gets Mother cleaned up. The next morning, the adults tell Parvana their plan: they’ll cut Parvana’s hair and dress her as a boy so she can work and shop in the market. Parvana insists that Nooria should do it, but Nooria is already too curvy to pass for male. After Mrs. Weera convinces Parvana to agree, Mother cuts Parvana’s hair and Parvana changes into Hossain’s shalwar kameez. In the market she discovers that as a boy, she’s invisible.
The next day, Parvana goes to the market with Father’s writing things and sets up her blanket in his spot. Her first customer is a Taliban soldier. He cries as Parvana reads a letter written to his late wife on the occasion of her wedding. Parvana is shocked that the soldiers have feelings. That afternoon, Parvana helps Mrs. Weera and her granddaughter move in with Parvana’s family. Then, Mrs. Weera wraps Maryam’s feet in cloth so she can accompany Parvana to the tap. Over the next week, Parvana escorts Nooria, Maryam, and Ali on afternoon walks. Parvana enjoys work. One afternoon she thinks she sees Father in the market, but it’s not him. Another day, Parvana notices a scrap of embroidered wool on her blanket and realizes it came from the window above. A few days later, she finds another offering and catches sight of the Window Woman.
One day, when a tea boy spills cups on Parvana’s blanket, Parvana is shocked: the tea boy is her former classmate, Shauzia. At the end of the day, Shauzia walks home with Parvana. She shares that she and her mother have been living with her paternal grandparents. Shauzia has been working as a tea boy for six months, but she’d rather sell things off a tray. Over supper later, Mother and Mrs. Weera discuss the magazine, which they’re printing in Pakistan with help from their secret women’s group. Later, Shauzia comes to Parvana with a plan to make money: digging up bones. Parvana reluctantly follows Shauzia across Kabul. Bones stick up out of the graveyard, and the bone broker sits at one end. The girls begin to dig. Parvana unearths a skull, names him Mr. Skull, and sets him on the gravestone. When the girls have exhumed five skeletons, they take turns watching over the bones while they pee in a bombed-out building. Parvana is terrified she’ll find a land mine. Then, the girls take the bones to the broker. They’re shocked; it takes Parvana three days to make this much money. The girls dig for the rest of the afternoon and agree that they don’t want to tell their families what they’ve done.
When Parvana gets home, however, she can’t get the image of Mr. Skull out of her mind. She falls into Mother’s arms, sobs, and tells everyone everything. Mother insists that they don’t need money badly enough to dig up bones, but Parvana insists she’s going to dig until she has enough money to buy a tray and items to sell. Nooria backs Parvana up and notes that they don’t have money for rent, kerosene, or much food. Mother relents when Mrs. Weera points out that people have to do “unusual things” to survive. After a week, Parvana and Shauzia have enough money for their trays.
Parvana spends her first morning back in the market writing letters. The Window Woman drops a bead for Parvana. As Parvana studies it, she thinks that she and Nooria don’t fight anymore. Fighting doesn’t make sense now. In the afternoons, Parvana and Shauzia sell cigarettes and gum. One Friday afternoon, the girls see men entering a stadium. Expecting to make a fortune during a soccer game, the girls follow the crowd inside, but they soon become fearful. No one seems happy, and there are Taliban soldiers and prisoners on the field. Shauzia screams when a soldier cuts off a prisoner’s hand. The girls huddle on the floor as a kind man sitting above them tells them to stay down and not look. Other men help them gather their scattered gum and cigarettes as the Taliban cut off six more hands, and when it’s over, they escort the girls out. For the next two days, Parvana stays home from the market. Mother and Mrs. Weera know what happens at the stadium thanks to women in their women’s group. When the family runs out of bread, Parvana goes back to work. Shauzia is thrilled to have Parvana back. She tells Parvana a secret: she’s saving money to run away to France. When Parvana asks about Shauzia’s family, Shauzia says she knows leaving her family makes her a bad person, but she’ll die if she stays.
Spring turns to summer. The market ceases to interest Parvana, though the tribal people who sell fruit share their stories, which Parvana then shares them her family. Mother and Mrs. Weera start a school for girls. Nooria teaches, but it’s hard with limited time and resources. The Window Woman continues to drop gifts, but one day, Parvana hears the woman’s husband beating her. She plans to tell her family, but Mother announces that Nooria is getting married. Later, Nooria tells Parvana that this is a great opportunity—her new in-laws will send her to university, and the Taliban doesn’t control Mazar-e-Sharif, where her future husband lives. Mother decides that they’ll all go to Mazar for the wedding, but Parvana refuses. She’s afraid that Father will get out of prison and no one will be home. Incensed, Mother decides to leave Parvana.
Mrs. Weera encourages Parvana to keep some pocket money. Near the end of August, Parvana gets caught in a rainstorm, takes shelter in a bombed-out building, and wakes up hearing a woman crying. The woman is terrified and she isn’t wearing a burqa. Parvana waits until dark to dash home, hoping that the Taliban won’t find them. They make it. Mrs. Weera cleans the woman up; she’s not much younger than Nooria. A day later, the woman introduces herself as Homa. She fled Mazar when the Taliban took the city. The soldiers shot Homa’s entire family and wouldn’t let the living bury or cover their dead. When Homa left, dogs were eating the bodies. Parvana is terrified that Mother and Nooria are dead, so she lies on the toshak for days. Shauzia stops by and asks Parvana to come back to work.
Life feels like a nightmare until Parvana gets home to find Father entering the apartment. Father slowly improves. Homa is educated, so she and Father practice speaking English together. Parvana begins to feel hopeful again and shares this with Shauzia. Shauzia says that she’s feeling hopeful, too: she’s working to leave Afghanistan, as she heard that her grandfather is looking for a husband for her. When Mrs. Weera gets the news that many people from Mazar are in refugee camps, Father and Parvana make plans to go look for Mother and Nooria. Mrs. Weera makes plans to go with Homa to Pakistan, where she can meet up with her women’s group and start a school. Mrs. Weera refuses to take Shauzia, though, believing that the girl should stay with her family.
A few days before she leaves Kabul, Parvana receives another gift from the Window Woman. To say goodbye to her friend, Parvana digs up some wildflowers to plant in her spot. An old man helps her and scolds other men who insist it’s silly to plant flowers. Two days later, Parvana bids Mrs. Weera, Homa, and Shauzia goodbye. Shauzia says she’s leaving soon, too, and she suggests that she and Parvana should meet in Paris on the first day of spring, 20 years from now. Parvana wonders what her future will look like and feels ready to meet it.