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What We’re Reading: I Am Malala

Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani advocate for girls education who was shot in the head by the Taliban, speaks at the United Nations (UN) Youth Assembly in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

I wouldn’t have picked the book, I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World, to read with my 10-year-old. It never occurred to me that it would make a good bedtime read for a child, even one who prefers history and biography over fiction. But then I glanced through a list posted by Common Sense Media of recommended books. There was a young readers edition, I realized. I ordered the book and within days Malala’s story was part of our own.

It helps to know that Malala survived; that she’s won the Nobel Peace Prize; that she sat just a few feet away from Stephen Colbert on his late night show, as any of us might dream of doing. It helps to know when you set out to read-with your own young daughter this account of a young girl shot on the way home from school, that this story does not end in Malala’s defeat or death.

But it’s true that when you open this book you’re inviting into your house an honest conversation about the region and political strife into which Malala was born and by extension, the world we all share. And it’s this aspect of the book that has provoked some conversations with my friends about when and if their own preteens are ready for it.

We can talk about girls and education and women and human rights. We can probably have conversations about earthquakes and human suffering, and the void in humanitarian help that gives rise to movements described in Malala’s story, the ones that hover like ominous clouds in the background of the early chapters.

But right from the start, we know this: two men stopped the white Khushal School bus on that day in early October. “Who is Malala?” one man yelled, looking in the back at the students. The answer to that demand is both the title of her book and its theme; it is who this girl is and what she represents.

What I didn’t know when we started the book, and what made it something my 10- year-old related to, was the level of detail given to Malala’s life within her family. She describes fights with her brothers, her avoidance of chores like doing the dishes, and her private conversations with God, asking, among other things, that it might his will to let her get the highest mark in her class.

Most poignant, though, is her relationship with her father. He maintains his school for girls and rejects the warnings of a popular radio mullah even after the man begins broadcasting the names of those who speak against him. If there’s anything that makes us grow up quickly, it’s seeing the risks one’s parents take when standing up to power or convention.

Is this why we feel Malala is mature beyond any measure? When her father shows her the Taliban’s threat on his computer, “Malala Yousafzai should be killed,” she responds by reminding him of his own words and then looks for courage instead of fear. We come to see Malala as the epitome of bravery, not to be confused with just any young woman who suddenly moves from obscurity to international celebrity.

Both my daughter and I admired Malala’s strength, but I was glad the book shared the ambivalence she feels about their new life in Birmingham. Once again, it’s in the details that she becomes our intimate friend. Her brother loves Nutella, and the dishwasher in their new home is nice, but she misses her friends. Malala acknowledges the paradox of the situation. Her schoolmates in Pakistan would love the “fancy technology and special classes” of her new school in England, but they have what she does not, she writes: “one another.”

Was my 10-year-old ready for the young readers edition of “I am Malala?” It’s a question parents might be asking about all sorts of books now that publishers are tapping the young readers nonfiction market with new zeal.

I remember when I was about 10 and my family spent a holiday with my grandparents in Florida. I slept on a cot in the dinning room, a place in the front of the house that must have gotten too much sun because my grandmother never opened the drapes. It was in this room, with a dusty china cabinet and little light, that I spent the evenings reading the book my father had just given me, Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl.

The other memorable present I got that year was a Cabbage Patch Kid. And so it was with one hand on the doll and the other on that book, that I became the confidante of the young girl in Amsterdam.

A young girl’s story, filled with heartbreaking details that open up a young reader to the scary world, you might say. But can you think of a better guide than one who is so thoughtful, so honest, and so beautiful in spirit?

I’d say my 10-year-old was ready for the book. But I’m glad we read it together. And, I’m glad it wasn’t part of a class assignment, at least not this first read. The act of a parent giving such a book to a child, as with my own experience when my father gave me Anne Frank’s diary, can, in its own way, become a story of growing up.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff is a freelance writer. Find her at or Follow her on Twitter @writeonsarah.

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