Some say that there is nothing you can’t put into a children’s book – everything is game, from the darkest nightmares to the scariest truths: children will take from the text and pictures at their own level of understanding; most will pass over their heads, and the rest will be absorbed. So, if Malala were to present her early story as a picture book, what would she include?
Malala’s Magic Pencil is an autobiographical tale of her early life, and although it obscurely touches on her shooting, and the negative impact of those who would withhold human rights, this is ultimately a coming-of-age tale that turns negative experiences into enormous hope for the future; a story of magic and positivity. Malala has an understanding of how to reach people through words, and this is what she does here, inspiring and enthralling young readers and future leaders.
The book begins by asking the reader if they believe in magic. Malala is pictured with large curious eyes, and importantly, paper and pen in hand, school rucksack on her back. Malala harks back to her favourite television programme about a boy with a magic pencil, a hero who protected people with his supernatural pen powers. The book then documents simply and effectively the hardships of Malala’s early life, the poverty of her neighbours, her love for her family, and yet also the restrictions on girls’ educations and freedoms in her country.
Before long, the war and ‘powerful and dangerous men’ intrude upon Malala’s life, stopping her from attending school, and so the book delves into Malala’s struggle to get her voice heard – using illustrations of endless papers and reading, computers and TV, before blackness falls on the next page. There is no blatant description of what Malala suffered, but she is seen wearing a hospital gown and bracelet, and simply:
“My voice became so powerful that dangerous men tried to silence me.”
From then, the book’s illustrations burst into light again with pastel shades of dress, banners and posters, people and delegates. Malala finds magic, not in a supernatural pencil, but in the power of her words.
The message is not just one of hope – but of working hard and persevering. The watercolour illustrations are as simple and effective as the text, and the subtle gold that filters through the book lends it that positivity and light – the wonder of the world. This is a marvellous introduction to not only Malala’s story, but also human rights, equality and the power of communication.
Below, I am lucky enough to be able to feature some questions and answers with Malala about her picture book.
You have told your story in a memoir for adults and a book for young readers. Why was it important for you to share your story with an even younger audience in a picture book?
I have met many young children who want to know about what happened in my life and why I believe in education for all, so it was important for me to share my story with them. For this age, a picture book felt like the best way – to use pictures and to simplify the events in a way that younger kids can understand. There are scary parts to my story, or details that are complicated to explain, but I wanted to be able to share it with a younger audience as best as I could.
What was different about the process of creating a picture book?
With other books, it was more stressful – so many details to remember and to make sure were accurate and we were always checking dates, and it was a very intense process that involved a lot of work. With the picture book, it was also a lot of work – choosing the artists, the color of the magic, and the color on the cover, and deciding how we should express everything in pictures and if the art felt accurate, down to the cracks in the wall of our home (I had to ask them to add more cracks) – small things that mattered a lot. And then when the text was paired with the art, we made a lot of small changes that made a big difference. I am proud of the memoirs, too, but to be honest, I enjoyed this process more.
What was it like seeing your illustrators, Kerascoët, bring your memories to life?
As I was turning pages, it reminded me of those joyful moments of my life in Swat. Seeing all that in these pictures made me happy, but it also made me miss that life. I had this beautiful past, but I had difficult times as well, and that time is gone now. I was impressed by how the illustrators managed to do everything so accurately and how well the images represent Swat Valley and my school life.
Seeing my story in pictures was nice – it was like seeing my story in a different way.
How did you approach the more serious issues like terrorism, poverty and violence when retelling your story for a younger audience?
I tried to explain it in simple terms and not go into too much detail. Some of my story in reality is horrible and scary, so both the artists and I tried to convey that bad things were happening – that happy moments had turned to bad moments and fear was growing. But the most important thing is that girls couldn’t go to school and I spoke out against this. The attempt on my life was an attempt to silence me, so that’s what we focused on for this version of my story, rather than include anything about the attack itself.
The book touches on the magic and power of our words and actions to create positive changes in the world. What advice do you have for young readers who want to change something in their lives or their community, but aren’t sure where to start?
The first thing is for young readers to believe in themselves and their ideas. They should never doubt themselves if they are fighting injustice. After that, there’s no limit in this world – whether you want to raise awareness by writing or making a video or talking to your parents. Or if you want to raise money for a cause or join a group or start a group. Sometimes these things look small to us – how will one small action bring change in this big world? – but if we do it together it will multiply. Back in Swat, I didn’t know if my voice would bring any change. But I spoke up anyway. Your voice is powerful and you can raise it in different ways.
What message do you hope children take away from Malala’s Magic Pencil?
I hope that they find their magic pencil. My magic pencil was my voice. I myself am curious what they will learn from this book and I hope they’ll reach out and tell me. I love getting letters from young people.
What is your favourite children’s book?
In our school in Swat, children were limited to their school textbooks and didn’t read extra books. I was considered a big reader because I read 8 or 9 books outside of school. That all changed when I got to the UK. But some of my favorite books that I read growing up were Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis, which is part of a series; and Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan by Melody Ermachild Chavis. It’s not a children’s book, but as a child, I also enjoyed A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – I loved reading about science.
Could you tell us about your favourite teacher when you were growing up?
Miss Ulfat was my teacher from an early age. I grew up with her. She inspired me to be good and respectful and to obey my parents and listen to my teachers. She inspired me to be a good student, work hard, and study. She gave me advice and would encourage me to participate in different activities. She always encouraged me to be better and to do better.
What’s next for Malala?
At Malala Fund, we will continue the work we’ve been doing. And I will continue to travel and speak on behalf of girls’ education.
I’m also excited for this new phase of life at university, and quite nervous, as it will be the first time I’m not living with my family. So many emotions are going through my mind and so many questions – what is my life going to be like? I am eager to find out.
With thanks to Penguin for letting me host this interview. You can buy your own copy of the book here.