Publishing Malala, A Guest Blog from Anna Barnes, PRH

When I meet people for the first time and tell them that I am a picture book editor, I always get a small shiver of pride. I am so lucky to have a job that I love, that is a lot of fun, and that is important, to boot. As children’s publishers, we have a lot of responsibility. The books we publish will be some of the first books children will ever read, so they have a big job to do: they need to inspire, to fire imaginations, to open minds. 

Being a picture book editor isn’t all about weighty, grand gestures – much of my job is to show children that stories can be fun, and silly, or surprising, or beautiful. But over the last year – seeing tragedy after tragedy unfurl around the world – I’ve been thinking more and more about the weightier responsibilities of children’s publishers. Children today are growing up in a world of political instability, mass migration and environmental chaos. When they grow up, we’ll have left them quite a mess to sort out. They need tools of empathy, compassion and bravery – and we know that books have the power to help. 

But it’s easier said than done. How to tell a story, in 32 or 48 pages, that offers hope, educates about the world, encourages inclusivity, without being clumsy and heavy handed, or sailing over the head of an inquisitive five-or-six-year old? It’s an almost impossible thing to get right.

So I was both astonished and delighted when Malala Yousafzai’s first picture book, MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL, landed on my desk. Along with the rest of the world, I looked on with horror as Malala was attacked, and with hope and triumph as she recovered to become an activist and ambassador for girls’ education around the world, before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her activism work. When she won her place at Oxford over the summer it was front-page news and I haven’t been happier to hear about someone getting into university since I received my own A Level results. 

Malala rose to prominence because of her writing about education and girls’ rights under the Taliban, so it should be no surprise that she is an exceptional author. But as every picture-book creator knows, writing for young children is particularly difficult. MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL is a masterclass – Malala tells her story in a sensitive, straightforward and child-friendly way, and offers a message of inspiration and hope.

Malala’s text is accompanied by brilliant illustrations by Kerascoët, which perfectly capture the environment of her childhood in the Swat valley and magnificently bring her words to life. I can’t take any credit for the editing, which is the work of the superbly talented Farrin Jacobs of Little, Brown in the US. But I am so proud to be publishing the book in the U.K. It is a personal account of Malala’s extraordinary story – and it is also a way into so many of the political and social issues that we are facing today. I hope that parents, families and teachers make good use of it, and that children are inspired by Malala’s story. As she said in her UN speech, and in the closing lines of her book, “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” If that line encourages even one child to pick up their own pen – or pencil – with the aim of fighting injustice or speaking up for those who need their voice, then the book will have been a success.

This guest blog was provided by Anna Barnes, Commissioning Editor, Penguin Random House Children’s. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG. 

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