Review: She Dared – Malala Yousafzai

“The girl stretched her arm, her large belly getting in the way. From the girl’s young age, Malala guessed it was her first child and she hadn’t been married long.” page 3

She Dared: Malala Yousafzai by Jenni L. Walsh.
Scholastic, New York, 2019.
Elementary/MG biography, 120 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 2.0 points) .

A highly problematic youth biography of Malala Yousafzai.

She Dared: Malala Yousafzai by Jenni L. Walsh.

It’s rare that by the third chapter of a children’s book I’m continuing to read only for due diligence. I tend to avoid or delay negative reviews – it’s more fun to write about wonderful books, or try to analyze the ones I feel lukewarm about. Since leaving daily school librarianship in a slight (and given the pandemic, well-timed) rerouting of my career, I haven’t followed Scholastic as closely. It’s no longer part of my professional duties to coordinate book fairs and Scholastic purchases, and in my personal and blog life, I prefer to focus more on smaller publishers and lesser known authors. One of my kids still orders from them though, which is how this book ended up in our house.

A quick glance at the series and it’s obvious that this was an attempt by Scholastic to capitalize on the success of female biography series such as Rebel Girls. Even the name here is a rip off of the She Persisted books. But being derivative isn’t always bad in children’s literature – while these books are less fun for adults to read, simplified plots and repetitive sentences can also help early readers in some circumstances.

What bothered me most about this book is that it was very clearly written for white readers (although it doesn’t state that openly) and panders heavily. If you read Malala’s own books, her perspective involves criticism of her culture – but from a place of deep love, respect, and understanding. For her as a cultural insider to denounce the Taliban and some aspects of traditional life, involves very different nuance than what Walsh uses here.

Let’s look at the first chapter in more depth, because I certainly don’t want to keep rereading the whole thing. Pages one and two attempt to set a market scene (including an odd reference to the problematic YA Twilight books which feels dated and off given intended reader age). Then pages three to five transition to seeing a young pregnant woman at the market – assuming she was forced into marriage, lecturing young readers about the importance of education, and turning to the Taliban. The rest of page five and all of page six focus entirely on the physical appearance of the men of the Taliban. It’s not until page seven that any mention is made of ideology – and the Islamic beliefs of Malala’s family are brought up only where they contrast to the Taliban.

If a child walked away from this chapter with the dangerous idea that being in the Taliban meant having a long beard and wearing a black turban (thinking that is contributing to very real anti-Sikh persecution in the USA) it certainly would not be due to a flaw in the reader’s comprehension.

Does Scholastic not care about Sikh or Muslim readers? Do they not have a single culturally competent author to draw on here? This book is going into schools and causing very real harm and misunderstandings. For some students, this might be the only book they read about a Pakistani or Muslim person – and will reinforce stereotypes including those Malala actively fights against.

Returning to the book – it doesn’t get much better. The insistence on men growing beards is weirdly tied to barbers going out of work. Malala eats naan and it’s carefully explained that that is bread, only for the word naan never to be used again (even though naan is a specific type of bread and also young readers are not stupid). In other cases direct quotes are pulled from Malala’s own writing without necessary context – like when her father calls her Jani. Literary nonfiction techniques are used indiscriminately. References and vocabulary lists are brief and not well considered. The editing is… weird at best. Britishisms like “mum” instead of mom or mother are kept, but without explanation. One will notice, however, that the author’s own perspective clearly informs her choices about what to explain.

Beyond the shooting of Malala which in most retellings is given more page time, the story includes details like acid being thrown on girls’ faces and bombs and gunfire. These are generally given before more positive information about rich Pashtun culture. In chapter three Malala is positioned as a lone voice speaking for justice – but in the next chapter savvy readers may recognize that as a misconception when her father is part of many different local and international groups working for change.

The middle third is tolerable. This part of Malala’s story is heavily documented, so it was probably easier for Walsh to rewrite it without serious error. There were still some annoying bits like “woman doctor” on page 86 (woman is a noun, if the gender of the doctor needed to be indicated it would be female doctor – although pronouns also do so clearly and using woman doctor indicates an assumption that doctors will be male).

The photographic inserts and chapter on Malala Days were the best parts of a generally not recommended book.

As I attempt to find some positive aspect about every book reviewed, I’ll note that the final chapter covering different causes Malala has supported on her birthdays since the shooting is the best in the book. It certainly is not good enough to excuse the previous nine, nor the lackluster back matter.

In my personal and professional life, I’ve read almost a dozen books about Malala Yousafzai (including all four versions of her autobiography). I haven’t read every children’s book that exists on her life yet, but can assure you that ALMOST ANY OTHER would be better than this particular title. The most comparable to this title, but far superior in every way, would be Malala: My Story of Standing Up for Girl’s Rights. Please get that one instead, as this one is strongly not recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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