Malala’s Magic Pencil and Free As a Bird

By Seemi Aziz, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

The next couple of books for this final week focusing on books about Malala Yousafzai are Malala’s Magic Pencil and Free As a Bird. Malala’s Magic Pencil is written by Malala herself and published in 2017. Free As a Bird is more recent, published in 2018, and is written and illustrated by Lina Maslo, who lives in South Carolina.

Malala's Magic Pencil Cover as described in post

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and illustrated by Kerascoët
The first book is by Yousafzai herself. It is illustrated beautifully with subtle colors and using gold and patterns. The cover page has all the intrinsic invitations to draw an audience’s attention to its content as do the other books in this textset. Malala is shown with darker than usual skin and black round eyes. In reality, Malala has a lighter skin tone and light eyes common to the people in the northern parts of Pakistan, which makes the visual text questionable and stereotypical from the get go. The cover has her looking up into the distance as though she could imagine what could be brought to life by a magic pencil. The end papers have extensive gold and white accents. Her father is again shown as the guiding light who explains and directs her thoughts and every one of her concerns to her to the point that seems didactic in nature. They are shown wearing the same white sandals. She is shown worrying about children picking trash and not being in school, and “That night I thought about families who didn’t have enough food. And the girl who could not go to school. And how when I was older, I would be expected to cook and clean for my brothers, because where I come from, many girls weren’t allowed to become what they dreamed of.” The shooting itself is skimmed over by the written text only when it says, “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried of silence me. But they failed.” The accompanying image does not explore the written content. It is written in the first person, which lends credibility to the written text. This book is about her concerns and empathy with humanity and her various accomplishments. The back matter is not that detailed and extensive with a few pictures.

This book has multiple reviews and awards, for instance: Booklist, 09/15/17, Horn Book Guide, 04/01/18, Horn Book Magazine, 11/01/17, Kirkus Reviews, 08/15/17, New York Times, 11/12/17, Publishers Weekly starred, 07/31/17, School Library Connection starred, 01/01/18, School Library Journal starred, 08/01/17.

Free as a Bird by Lina Maslo 2018
Maslo’s book does not do justice and seems to be a story put together by the least amount of research. The book has multiple unsourced quotes attributed to Malala. Maslo’s book is stereotypical in many ways and generalizes multiple major points in the story. For instance, words like, “when she was born, people sighed and shook their heads. ‘A girl.’ They whispered. ‘What bad luck.'” This is something that goes against the religion of Islam and the Islamic teaching. The birth of a girl is always celebrated. And further, words such as, “As Malala grew, she realized that women in Pakistan did not have the same rights as men. Women like her mother had to hide their faces. They were expected to marry young and have children. They could not be anyone they wanted to be when they grew up.” (Maslo, 2018 unpaged). Women in Pakistan have as much right as any western nation and they have had that right even before any western nation had them, for example the rights of owning property and voting. Pakistani women are not forced to do anything that they don’t want to do. Yes, there may be instances of such events happening as they do in the west, but it is definitely not the norm in the majority of Pakistani regions. This book also does not mention Taliban calling them “new enemy” coming to Pakistan. In reality Taliban infiltrated a certain small section of Pakistan, where Malala was living, but never the whole of Pakistan. The two-page paneled images lead up to the shooting which again is a double page spread and is represented abstractly with black and red color splashes leading to soft blue waves; representing the violence and the subsequent survival.

The reviews and awards for this book are as follows: Booklist, 10/15/17, Kirkus Reviews, 10/15/17, Publishers Weekly, 11/20/17, School Library Journal, 12/01/17

All the books within this textset talk about basically the same story repeated many times over. The major differences are in the illustrations and the back matter. The story of Malala by the publishers says, “The inspiring, true story of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who stands up and speaks out for every child’s right to education. Though she and two of her schoolmates were targeted by a Taliban gunman, a life-threatening injury only strengthened her resolve”–Publisher.

Malala is a survivor and an activist who has chosen to use her life and experiences to further her persona as an aura of a hopeful and progressive Muslim woman. What the story emphasizes time and again is the Father’s role in creating an image of a liberated and educated woman while his own wife is not educated. The wife is used an as image of women which Malala does NOT want follow, so her mother is left out of the conversation and is used only to emphasize the negativity that the whole of Pakistani women seems to represent; that of uneducated women who have had no right to any liberty. The father is also represented as different father to the norm to give her so many rights; so again, reinforcing the stereotype that most Muslim fathers are terrible, and Malala’s father is so unusual and superior. Her brothers are not mentioned beyond representing what Malala cannot be where liberties are concerned. They are left completely out of the limelight, as if their lives are more significant and needs more protection through anonymity than Malala’s; who was projected from the time she was a born. The choice of her name was just a start when she was named after a historical heroin who stood up vocally against the British government in joint India. Ironically, it’s the same Britain that initially let Malala’s voice reach the world through her blogs posted on BBC, that provided medical relief to her and now houses, protects and projects Malala on the world stage along with the whole family.

Each of the narratives brought in reinforcements of stereotypes and generalizations about Pakistan Islam and culture. Such as representing Taliban as permeating the whole of Pakistan even though that is an incorrect supposition. Each of these books emphasize common perceptions and concepts that reinforce postcolonial images of Muslims, for instance those of oppression, poverty, abuse and few rights for Muslim women, etc. I recommend watching Cornered Tiger: the other side of Pakistan by Bilal Qureshi Films, produced, written and edited by Bilal Sohail Qureshi as it speaks to the concerns about Pakistan and Malala.

After researching about Malala’s life and reading the multiple books about her, I come away with a myriad of questions; has her father been using Malala to gain access to the western nation where he resides now? Why did he name his school after his son ‘Khushal’ and not after Malala who was bringing in all the attention and is the claim to his fame? How did Malala have access to strong English education while the rest did not? How did she write her blog in such expressive language? Were the words hers or her father’s or some other western influences? What was the story about the two other young girls who were also shot? Why is their story not getting so much traction? Why are her brothers still kept out of the limelight?

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