Malala Yousafzai is a young activist for education and girls’ rights in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban about a year ago. Her story captured the attention of people all over the world—as the mother of a young girl who feels strongly about injustice, I was definitely drawn in.
Malala’s autobiography, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, isn’t written explicitly for young readers—it delves into religion, injustice, and politics and assumes a certain knowledge of geography and current events in a way that most books for young readers wouldn’t. However, I’m sure many young readers will feel drawn to Malala’s story, and the book is very much in her voice. Sometimes this means the thread of the text gets a bit tangled and unraveled as she jumps around among ideas and memorable events, but there were enough dates and other facts to help bring things back in line.
Note: There’s now a version for younger readers, which seems to cut about 60 or so pages: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition)
I rarely read nonfiction now that no one is assigning me reading, but I made an exception for I Am Malala, and I’m glad I read it. My daughter (almost 13) is interested in reading it now that I’m finished—I’ll update the review once she’s read it.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It’s a book about a girl who was shot in the face on a school bus. Violence is part of the backdrop of her existence. She matter-of-factly talks about people who are killed and tortured, bodies left in the public square, and the threats made against her and her father. The last few chapters go into some detail about the treatments and surgeries she undergoes because of her injuries. However, it’s never graphic or lurid. She’s just telling us the way things are—which might make it more disturbing for some readers. There’s no veneer of fiction or sensationalism to hide behind.
There are photographs of the bus where she was shot and of her in hospital afterwards. They’re not very graphic, but might be disturbing to some.
It’s really not easy to be a woman in Pakistan. A lot of the issues women and girls face will be horrifying to many young readers. Girls who do go to school are kept separate from the boys. Women can’t go outside unaccompanied by a male relative—in passing, Malala mentions that she had to send someone else out to get her a snack from a vendor because she couldn’t go out herself. I can imagine my daughter getting very worked up about the injustice of this.
Malala speaks up for women’s rights, particularly the right of every girl to be educated. But her own mother left school at age 6 and never learned to read or write. Over the years, more and more of her classmates leave school to get married or simply because male relatives decided it was improper for them to get an education. Members of the Taliban speak out against educating girls. Schools are blown up. For a while, Malala’s school is closed. She fears that they will start throwing acid in girls’ faces like they’ve done in Afghanistan.
Malala mentions that she never covers her face, unlike most of her peers. However, her head is almost always covered in public.
Malala is Muslim, and her faith is very important to her. She prays frequently, although more often when she has a test or some other thing to ask for, much to her mother’s chagrin. She finds strength in her faith and prays hard when she’s afraid.
She speaks out strongly against extremists who twist the teachings of Islam to justify taking rights away from others. She’s horrified by the violence they justify in the name of faith.
The book offers a picture of life in Pakistan which will seem very foreign to many readers. Poverty is rampant and things we take for granted are missing. But Malala loves Swat—the place that she calls home that she cannot return to. She describes it as green and beautiful. It’s a good insight into a world most of us will never see firsthand.
On the other hand, there are a lot of similarities, too. Malala deals with a lot of the same issues as other young girls. She gets into fights with her younger brothers and her best friend. She worries about fixing her hair and dressing in nice clothes. She likes to watch TV and play video games. She’s a fan of Western media, including Twlight. Many young readers will find it easy to identify with her.
There is some discussion of how the United States is viewed in its political dealings with Pakistan and of the negative effects of the drone strikes.
Standing Up for What You Believe
Malala’s father is an activist for education, and he frequently spoke up even in the face of threats. Malala follows in his footsteps, starting at a young age. She was a global voice for years before she was shot, speaking through the media and before powerful adults. She spoke up in the face of threats as well, although she and her family tended to assume the Taliban wouldn’t sink so low as to attack a child.
The main theme of the book is speaking up and making a difference in the world, especially when other people are telling you to sit down and shut up. Malala hopes that conversation and education will make a difference whereas violence makes things worse.
There are some tough topics covered in I Am Malala and the structure isn’t the easiest to read—it’s both chronological and by theme, so it jumps around a bit. However, I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested enough to read about Malala. Be prepared to talk about it with younger readers, though. I’m sure it will bring up some difficult questions.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
Published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company
Also available in a version for younger readers, I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition)
Read my mother’s copy