I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Aimed at teen readers, this telling of Malala's story is simply told but still very powerful. It's a sharp insight into a major issue, leavened by her very warm and personal telling. It should be on every school curriculum and on the reading list of every member of parliaments around the world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780622163

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She's a phenomenon is my OH's response to any mention of Malala. I can't disagree on some level, but what this book proves is that on another she is just a girl. One voice among many. It's just that she decided to speak louder than most. We know about Malala because she got lucky. She got lucky because when she got shot by the Taliban there were people nearby, doctors who got her to a hospital, and then luckier still because when her condition worsened, nearby there were western doctors with access to western facilities and she was flown to the UK for treatment.

And that's when life changed for ever for Malala. It wasn't the day she was shot. Many have been shot and killed (or worse) by the Taliban for speaking out. It was the day the news of her being airlifted to Birmingham went around the world. That was what changed everything, because that was what brought this extraordinary young woman to the attention of the world's (rather than just Pakistan's) media and gave her the opportunity to really do, what she'd set out to do.

Make no bones about it, Malala might be just a girl (or a young woman by now), but by no stretch of the imagination is she ordinary. You know that Twelfth Night quote to the effect that some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them? Well, Malala is one of the first kind.

She is what my mother would have called an old soul. We don't believe in reincarnation in my family, but my mother would have looked at Malala and heard her story and said she's been here before. We also don't believe in predestination, but you read this story and you have to wonder.

If I'm making all of this sound hugely portentous, sorry. That's wrong of me, because it isn't like that at all. This edition of Malala's story is being marketed as the "teen edition" and has apparently been written for her peers and is fully updated with new material. I can't speak to any comparison with the original book, but it is updated to June 2015, by which time the family are – for the time being at least – settled in Birmingham. I'd guess that as a teen edition, the language may have been simplified, or the ideas explained more simply than would be the case were it aimed at adults. Frankly, I think that in this case that's almost meaningless… not least because I suspect most teenagers are more clued-up about the history of Pakistan and its surrounding countries than most of my generation.

This is what today's teenagers have grown up with.

So let's set aside any notion of this being aimed at a specific market… and look at what it gives us. The marketing just makes what's in there perhaps more accessible than it might be in a format that aimed to be more sophisticated. Part of me wonders if, actually, this version gets us closer to the real Malala: the girl who (as she says repeatedly) is still in there; the girl who worried about her looks but also the girl who played cricket with her brothers in the street, but above all the girl who loves books and loves to learn.

That's where she starts her story: growing up in a humble home, squabbling with her brothers and playing tag, and hide-and-seek, and above all cricket in the streets around her home. A girl who grew into a pre-teen who would whisper secrets through the wall with her best friend, and who would regularly fall out with said best friend over what (again my mam would call) something and nothing.

But she wasn't ordinary, and she didn't have a totally ordinary background. She was lucky to be born into a family that cherished education, even for girls. Her father ran a school, stinting the family on occasions to pay for it, such was his commitment to the cause. Her illiterate mother encouraged her to get the learning she'd missed out on.

If you doubt that this girl was born great, consider this: at the age of about three she could be found at play lecturing to empty classrooms, as she grew she would skive kitchen chores to sit at the knees of the menfolk and listen to politics she didn't yet understand, as she grew older, she would dutifully take tea in to the men so she could continue to get snippets of the talk, and most tellingly of all, she would practice speech-making in front of the bathroom mirror.

This girl was on the path she is on now, long before she knew where it would lead her: not only on it, but training to be sure she could travel it well.

She adopted her mission quite early on, speaking out in class and then in local media in favour of education, especially when the Taliban closed down the schools in her valley in 2009. She was already becoming locally famous before any of us had heard much about her. In October 2011 she'd been nominated for International Children's Peace price by Archbishop Tutu. A year later she'd be deliberately targeted by the Taliban and shot. Three girls were injured that day, none of them died – and the voice that the gunmen tried to silence was suddenly infinitely louder.

She tells her story in a very straightforward manner. This happened and then that happened, and then I don't remember and I woke up here… She pieces together fragments of memory, fragments of filled-in narrative. Through it all, you can hear not just a confident young woman on a mission to promote the right to education, but also a mischievous one, a delightful one who claims not to fight with her brothers, but just to oblige them when they fight with her. You can hear her joy at being alive, her pleasure in small things.

Of course you also get to live some of the pain she has been through – the fear of waking alone in an ICU in a foreign country with a green teddy (such a strange colour) and not knowing where your beloved father is and not getting answers to the questions you're writing down in mangled English because your brain isn't working and a tube stops you talking and people are trying, but maybe failing, to be kind. I am not ashamed to say I wept more than once.

But she also made me smile again and again. Malala is strong in her faith. She makes that very clear. Her faith is Islam. Yet, there is no conflict, she is adamant between that faith and the right of girls to be educated, to uncover their faces, to be free to learn and to choose. There is nothing to be gained through violence, especially violence directed at children. She cuts through the politics to the essence of atrocity.

And she still fights with her brothers, and doesn't like grey Birmingham weather, but loves cheesy wotsits – and knows that it is likely to be a long time before she can go home to her beautiful Pakistan valley of Swat.

It is a very powerful story, perhaps the more so from being so simply told.

The book also contains the text of her speech to the United Nations (an experience not as scary as standing up in front of her classmates apparently). There is a conversation with her, a verbatim interview, bringing us up to date on her views and ambitions now. There's a glossary covering some of the non-English words used in the text and a time line of important events (basically a potted history of Pakistan, with Malala's life interspersed. For any educators or book-club leaders, there's a series of discussion points, with thought prompts to encourage a more critical (in the wider sense) reading of the text. The selection of photographs serve to remind us that however special she is, Malala is also a very human person – in the very best sense of humanity.

I've quoted my mother in this review. I'm going to finish by quoting my father. When I was about ten or eleven years old, talking politics and poverty with my Dad (though I didn't have to skive out of the kitchen to do so) he told me that the solution to many of the world's problems was Educate the women. He'd have loved this.

At this point I would normally recommend something else you might like – and teens interested in the big issues could do worse than to try Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah, - but on this occasion I am (exceptionally) going to urge you to watch Malala's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech – see the video link.

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