You know an issue has struck a chord with kids when the first thing you hear upon bringing home a new book is that “lots” of kids at school are reading it. The book then disappears for a day and a half, and when it’s returned, it’s pronounced “good,” high praise from any middle school student. That book is I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick. It follows Malala’s young life and close relationships with her family up through and after the attack in which Taliban fighters shot her because she was promoting education for girls.
It just happened that the same batch of books from the library included The Red Pencil, Andrea David Pinkney’s novel in verse. Amira, a Sudanese girl who dreams of going to school, has a mother who can’t read herself and doesn’t see the point of schooling. Because of encroaching war, Amira and her family have to flee, but eventually she begins to find a path to her dreams, too, with a red pencil and a notebook.
Both of these books explain why some cultures have resisted educating girls and women: it’s tradition, religious leaders discourage it, it’s too expensive to send them to school, their help is needed at home, or it just isn’t valued. Why would a girl need an education if she’s going to get married and be a farmer?
What’s really wonderful is that both books present their character’s stories from the perspective of an individual in a completely realistic family. Malala and Amira are strong individuals who care about people who want them to be able to go to school and also care deeply for a few people who don’t want them to be educated. Once you get to know Malala and Amira, you want to see them realize their dreams. You see their lives, real and fictional, playing out because of decisions that are made for them and through their own choices, as imperfect as they sometimes are. It may be very different from your own life, but their common humanity and hopes for the future shine through and connect you to them.
As UNICEF reports in this document, “Over recent decades there has certainly been significant progress in girls’ education. Between 1970 and 1992, combined primary and secondary enrolment for girls in developing countries rose from 38 per cent to 68 per cent — with particularly high rates in East Asia (83 per cent) and Latin America (87 per cent). But there is still some way to go. In the least developed countries enrolment rates are only 47 per cent at the primary level and 12 per cent at the secondary level.”
Other great books about girls and women as agents of change:
- A Girl Named Disaster, Nancy Farmer (fiction)
- A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park (fiction)
- Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George (fiction)
- Heroes for My Daughter, Brad Meltzer (includes women and men who have changed the world)
- Seeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson (about Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai)
- Elizabeth Leads the Way, Tanya Lee Stone (about Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
- The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement, Teri Kanefield
- A Woman in the House (and the Senate), Ilene Cooper, (about women who have served in the U.S Congress)
- Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, Duncan Tonatiuh