Eleven-year-old Parvana lives with her family in a one room apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan, which is under Taliban rule. When her father is arrested without warning for being an intellectual, Parvana's mother is left alone to care for their three children. Banned from going out in public without a man, Parvana’s mother risks arrest herself as she travels to the local prison and demands her husband’s release, only to end up being beaten and turned away.
As the family becomes desperate for food, Parvana must cut off her hair and disguise herself as a boy so that she can venture out in public and become the breadwinner for her family. She meets a girl named Shauzia who is also dressed as a boy for the same reason. Shauzia teaches Parvana how to earn money on the streets of Kabul and Parvana is a quick study.
With her newfound friend and freedom, Parvana gains confidence in herself and takes on the responsibility of feeding her family. She also weaves a fantastical story to keep her family’s spirits up while they await their father’s return. The story is about a young boy named Sulayman who must travel a great distance and complete three trials in order to defeat a giant elephant who is terrorizing his land.
After Parvana narrowly escapes being discovered as a girl, her mother reveals she has arranged a marriage for Parvana’s sister, Soraya, and that the family is moving to Mazar. Parvana begs her mother to delay their departure for one more day, so she can attempt to connect with her father. As war encroaches on Kabul and with all the resolve she has left, Parvana treks to the prison and, with the help of a sympathetic Talib guard, works to free her father once and for all.