Seeing the words of Malala Yousafzai in print, it’s easy to imagine she’s older than her 17 years – that her formal education spans decades, subjects, institutions, and oceans. After all, in her short life, the Pakistani activist, perhaps the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has endured trials that few Americans of any age can comprehend.
“I’m often in the company of adults, so it’s nice to meet girls my age or younger,” Yousafzai told PW last week, when she was in New York to launch the young readers edition of her bestselling memoir, I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Little, Brown). “I know they consider me a role model, but I say I’m just like them.”
Discussing the tour for this book, provides a window into Yousafzai’s typical-teen psyche: “I fight with my brothers,” she says. “When I ask [American girls I’ve met] about their brothers, they tell the same stories – they have the same feelings.” She laughs. “From them I get strength: they tell me the fight against my brothers is the right thing.”
Sibling rivalry jokes aside? “They also tell me that they love their school,” she says, turning her attention to her actual cause – a global awareness and fundraising initiative in support of girls’ education. “That they want to continue their education, and that they’re ready to support the campaign.”
While threats of terrorism at home and abroad still dominate the headlines, few events are as chilling as the one at the center of Yousafzai’s story: two years ago, two Taliban gunmen climbed aboard the already well-known activist’s school bus in northwest Pakistan and shot the then 15-year-old in the head at point-blank range.
To say she survived is an understatement: after undergoing brain surgery in Birmingham, England, and after a recovery that many call miraculous, she co-wrote a first memoir (subtitled The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban), and enrolled in school in the U.K. She now juggles her studies with the demands of her non-profit organization, the Malala Fund; her mission to empower girls and youth is so intertwined with her writing that the launch of the new book took place at the United Nations, where Yousafzai and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke before an audience of 500-plus youth activists.
Creating a young readers’ edition entailed more than a simple rewrite, says Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “We wanted to be careful about subject matter that might seem too scary, but not to sacrifice readers’ understanding of the world that Malala was coming from and why it was necessary for her to fight for an education,” says Jacobs. “Kids might think, ‘I couldn’t possibly relate to this person,’ but as you read, you realize that she was a teenage girl who went to school, who made friends.”
In the new version, a collaboration with National Book Award finalist Patricia McCormick (Sold; Never Fall Down), those critical days after the attack are handled much differently than they are in the adult version, which focuses at times on Yousafzai’s parents’ anguish and uncertainty. “Malala said, 'I want to tell the story the way I experienced it,’ ” says Jacobs. So the action stops abruptly on October 9, 2012, after shots ring out, and starts up again a week later, from a hospital bed in Birmingham. “The first thing I thought,” writes Yousafzai, “was, Thank God I’m not dead.”
This strong point of view helps to ensure “that [Yousafzai] feels like a real girl and not just an icon,” says Jacobs. In order to ensure they hit the right notes, both she and McCormick traveled to visit Yousafzai’s family in Birmingham, working with the teen while she was on breaks from school. While Jacobs marvels at how hands-on her author was during the editing process, for Yousafzai, it was about simplifying the narrative: scaling back some of the historical and geopolitical writing and steering away from her parents’ backstories.
“When the adult book was written, we joked that the title really should be I Am Malala and This Is My Father’s Story,” she says. “This really is my story.”
The life of a girl growing up in her native Swat Valley is markedly different than that of an American girl, says Yousafzai, but she points out that every society has its struggles. “There is also discrimination here: in most of the magazines and books, and on TVs, you see that women are not shown as they want to be but rather as the way men want,” she says. “It’s unjust and unfair – women should be allowed to be who they really want to be.”
She admits that before she was shot, she used to fret about her looks: “I worried that one eye was smaller than the other, and I wanted my teeth to be straighter – and whiter,” she says. “But these things don’t make us who we really are.”
That ordinariness, in fact, may give her story a unique power to inspire: “I’m not a character like Rapunzel or Cinderella; my story looks like any other,” says Yousafzai. “In the beginning, we led a happy life in a beautiful place. Then something bad happens: 400 schools are destroyed, women’s rights are neglected, there is fear and terrorism. Heroes come, and they speak and they struggle and they fight.”
Books enable us to share in this struggle, Yousafzai says. And this one even has a happy ending: “The villain is defeated, and there is peace,” she says. “Girls are going to school again in Swat Valley. And that is great.”
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick. Little, Brown, $17 Aug. 19 ISBN 978-0-316-32793-0