An educated person learns to question the status quo and redefine herself and her place in the world. She will be both empowered and entrusted with educating the next generation of change-makers. For those like the Taliban (and ironically, the word itself means “student”), this change, this empowerment, this betterment of humankind represents the antithesis of the Dark Age path they forcefully pursue.
Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani young lady who defied the Taliban by pursing her education. She was shot in the head one afternoon as she was returning home from school and through coincidence and divine intervention, she lived to inspire millions and win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Patricia McCormick, award winning author of Sold, Never Fall Down and Cut graciously shared with us her opportunity to work with Malala in writing the New York Times bestseller I am Malala (Young Readers Edition).
Fine Living Lancaster: How did you get the job to work with Malala? Why do you think you were chosen?
Patricia McCormick: As soon as I heard that Malala was recovered enough to read, I sent her some of my books. I have a feeling they got lost in the thousands and thousands of packages she received. Eventually, though, a literary agent in the UK thought of me as a possible collaborator and sent Malala my books. We had a Skype session to see if it was a good match and I think we both instantly knew we were kindred spirits.
FLL: Was there a schedule you had to follow? And did this schedule intimidate your creative process?
PM: I had only 90 days to write the first draft! (It usually takes me at least a year to write a book.) But I was lucky: the facts of her life were well known and I could use the adult version of her biography as a base. My job was to ask Malala to go beyond the answers she’d already given to hundreds of journalists—and reveal more about herself as a “regular girl.” I wanted her to uncover personal aspects of her story that made her relatable to other kids. The short deadline meant I worked all day everyday from the minute I got up. It was all-engrossing—which was good. I was “in the flow” the whole time.
FLL: Were your preconceived ideas about Malala (because I am sure you did your research before you met her) altered after working with her?
PM: I wouldn’t say I had any preconceived ideas about her—but I was intimidated by her. She’s a hero to the whole world, the best-known teenager in the world and, honestly, I was nervous in her company at first. Oddly enough, I think she was a little tentative with me too, since I was asking her to reveal new and more personal aspects of her character.
FLL: How much time and access were you given to Malala?
PM: We spent about a total of three weeks together, working long days. Usually 4-5 hours a day. To break up the stiffness of sitting and doing interviews all day, we did some playful things. She taught me some Pakistani games—a version of hopscotch, for instance, and I taught her yoga. We arm-wrestled and she beat me fair and square… three times!
FLL: Other than written on an easier reading level, how is the young readers edition different from the adult version?
PM: It’s a much more personal, less political story. The trick was to condense some of the political and historical information to the minimum needed—so that readers could appreciate the universal aspects of her story; she’s a girl like any other, who wants to see her friends at school, to learn to prepare for a better future and to have fun. She’s like any child deprived of an education—children in refugee camps, children in poverty. The reading level may be easier, but I think the emotional impact is stronger—because I was able to reveal more of her thoughts and premonitions before the attack. I also think the family dynamics come through more clearly in this version. For instance, in the adult book, Malala and her father are the “stars.” in the YR version, it’s clear that the mother is the rock of the family, the moral compass. This is because my job was to show a more in-depth view of the family. It’s also clear in the YR book the role her brothers play in her life and how they, too, have suffered because of the family’s dislocation.
FLL: Can you describe Malala? With all of the attention and adulation has she been able to stay grounded?
PM: She is very bright, very principled, absolutely fearless—and also very funny. She loves to laugh. She is this amazing combination of “regular” girl and world figure. Her family is doing an amazing job balancing her desire to lead a world campaign for children’s education with her equally strong desire to be a regular school girl. They are very careful about accepting speaking invitations—because, after all, she’s a sophomore in high school! She has algebra homework! She can’t keep up with her studies if she’s traveling all the time. And, don’t forget, she nearly died for her right to go to school—so it means the world to her to simply be in school.
FLL: Why do you believe Malala’s story holds such a worldwide appeal?
PM: Because she was so utterly fearless. She knew her cause was right; she knew she represented millions of kids who couldn’t go to school and she was willing to put her life on the line. Rarely do we see someone with such unwavering courage. And when the Taliban tried to silence her, they only gave her a bigger “microphone.”
FLL: What did you learn about yourself while writing Malala’s story?
PM: I was inspired to be more truthful in every aspect of my life. If she could risk it all to tell the truth, so could I.
FLL: Even before the attempt on her life, Malala’s father appeared to use Malala as a face of female education. There were videos, news stories, and all of this attention may have put her in the bullseye of the Taliban. Did you sense any resentment on the part of Malala towards her father and his ambitions for her?
PM: I asked them both about this issue, privately and when they were together. Her father was completely surprised by the attack on Malala. He had always been the one getting death threats; he never dreamed that the Taliban would target a child. He was devastated by the attack on her and says he carries every bit of pain, every scar that she has. He said he does not regret the decision that he and Malala made together for her to speak out. It is the Taliban, he says, who should be ashamed for hurting her. It is the government that should be blamed for not protecting her. Malala was genuinely surprised that anyone would blame her father for what happened to her. And when they were finally reunited in the hospital, she could see how heartbroken he was. She told him she wasn’t suffering and that he shouldn’t suffer either. They never spoke of it again; they didn’t need to. I’ve never seen two people so in sync with each other.
FLL: Malala appears to put quite a bit of pressure upon herself. She talks about having always been a good girl but now having to be a very good girl. Did you see that pressure?
PM: She admits that she feels a self-imposed pressure to be good. But she is also quite able to have fun. And I think her ideas of fun are so wholesome, so innocent, that she’s not drawn to do anything that would bring negative attention her way. She also knows she can’t be perfect. And she knows she has enemies who want to kill her just for speaking out. So I think she feels free, in a way, to be fully herself. As she says, “The worst has already happened.”