Illustrating a better world: ‘Malala’s Magic Pencil’ inspires, invokes youth voices

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What if you had a magic pencil with the power to create anything you wanted? What would you draw? What would you erase?

As a child Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate, dreamed for such a pencil, one to draw a real soccer ball for her brothers or beautiful dresses for her mother. One to draw a more peaceful world, an equal place for boys and girls.

Reading such simple yet complex desires immediately calls forward one’s privilege. Is this what you would wish for?

Yousafzai isn’t writing this story to showcase her struggles, but instead to prove that anyone can overcome. In her debut children’s picture book released last Tuesday, entitled “Malala’s Magic Pencil,” Yousafzai poetically tells the story of her childhood. Written in first person with her tone light and vocabulary uncomplex, this novel is intended for her younger readers.

Yet her story is not an easy one to tell. Growing up in Taliban-controlled Pakistan, Yousafzai was one of a few girls still allowed to go to school. Her father, a teacher and local educational activist, instilled in her the passion to speak up for what she believed in. Targeted by the Taliban for her words, she was shot in the face on a school bus.

This is not an easy story to tell to children. Not only is it dark, but is a world some children may have never experienced. To some American children, education is thought of as a punishment more than a privilege. How do you explain a world they cannot fathom? Alternatively, some children in other parts of the globe have never seen the inside of a classroom. How do you bring hope of a world they cannot fathom?

The answer, in Yousafzai’s case, is through beautiful and poignant illustration. Yousafzai’s words are brought to life by Kerascoët, the husband-and-wife illustrating duo Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy. Stunning watercolors fill each page, overlaid with the golden dreams of a young Malala.

The illustrations are real. They showcase the cracks in Yousafzai’s living room, the large trash pile outside her house, the war-torn buildings in her city, Swat, Pakistan. She discusses her attack vaguely; on an entirely black page she writes, “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me. They failed.”

Despite the destruction on the pages, bronze foiled swirls transform Yousafzai’s reality into a dream. Malala’s magic pencil draws bronze backpacks, bronze books and bronze dresses. Somehow, Yousafzai perfectly balances the sorrow and the joy of her life in a way that makes her story even more compelling.

Her goal in writing this book was to show children that they are never too young to stand up for what they believe in. In a letter to her readers she writes, “When we are young, we feel powerless. We rely on adults to do the serious work.”

Despite all the odds, Yousafzai took that powerlessness and created an entire movement, one that fights for the education of girls worldwide.

Somehow, Yousafzai avoids condescension or dumbing down her incredibly important message for her younger audience. She talks about human rights in a way that makes them understandable to children and yet never sacrifices her truth in doing so.

The book has yet another, perhaps unintended lesson to teach as well. The characters illustrated within these pages wear burkas and hijabs and salwar kameezes. In a time when diverse and authentic representation is ever-more important, Yousafzai is adamant — all children will see themselves within these pages. No matter the color of their skin or the clothes that they wear, all children will be able to read Malala’s words — “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world” — and maybe even take them to heart.

“Malala’s Magic Pencil” is a beautiful account of a terrifying but inspiring tale. Though the story begins with fantasy, it ends starkly grounded in reality. Malala does use a pencil to make her dreams come true, but it has nothing to do with magic.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].