The book begins on October 9, 2012, as Malala Yousafzai, a teenaged girl, makes her way to school by bus. On her ride to school, Malala thinks about how her hometown of Mingora, Pakistan has changed in the last decade, and how the Taliban (a radical Islamist group) continue to pose a threat to advocates of education and women’s rights. Suddenly, the bus stops, and a man climbs onboard. He demands to know who Malala is. Malala says nothing, but her identity is obvious: she’s not wearing her burqa (female veil). The man raises a gun and shoots Malala in the head.
The book then “flashes back” to Malala’s birth. When she was born, few people in her community bothered to congratulate her parents, Ziauddin and Tor Pekai, because the birth of a girl is seen as a failure on the part of the parents. Malala explains more about her culture. She is a Pashtun, an ethnic group situated mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She lives in the Swat Valley, a beautiful part of Northwestern Pakistan. She is also a devout Muslim, and has been all her life. From a very early age, she was conscious of the restrictions being placed on her because of her sex.
Malala’s father, Ziauddin, is a charismatic, educated man. He grew up studying poetry and literature, and earned his family’s respect by winning several prestigious debating competitions. In the 1980s, when Pakistan fell under the control of the brutal dictator General Zia, Ziauddin founded a series of schools that offered educations to girls as well as boys. While many of these ventures failed—since many Muslims in Pakistan refused to believe in a woman’s right to an education—Ziauddin eventually found success. As an adult, he married Tor Pekai for love, rather than because of a family arrangement—this, Malala notes, is highly irregular in Pashtun culture. Ziauddin became a passionate advocate for free speech, education, and women’s rights: three causes that he raised Malala to respect deeply.
As a child, Malala was clever but shy. Ziauddin encouraged her to participate in speaking and debating competitions, and she did so, gradually working her way up to become one of the most talented public speakers of her age. She excelled in the classroom, usually ranking first in her classes. Once, when Malala was about six years old, she stole a toy from her friend, and afterwards developed a habit of stealing other things. When they found out about this, Malala’s parents were so ashamed of her that Malala resolved to never steal anything or do anything sinful ever again. She claims that she never has.
Growing up, Malala noticed the rampant poverty in her community. She pestered her father to allow more children to enter his school on scholarship, and Ziauddin agreed. Ziauddin and Tor Pekai raised Malala to be a pious Muslim. Despite believing in the Islamic faith, Malala noticed from an early age that Pakistanis would cite Islam when they belittled women and forbade them from learning. Malala began to develop her own interpretation of Islam, whereby women could educate themselves while also being perfectly faithful Muslims.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Malala’s community became violent and religiously extreme. The organization called the Taliban rose to prominence in the area, headed by Maulana Fazlullah. The Taliban offered a strict, repressive interpretation of Islam, whereby women should remained covered by a burqa in public, and certainly not attend school. Claiming that all other religious were worthless, the Taliban blew up the enormous Buddha carved into the side of the Swat Valley. This horrified Malala and her family.
In 2007, Pakistan’s situation deteriorates still further when the Taliban assassinate Benazir Bhutto, the female prime minister, and an important role model for Malala (who is ten years old at the time). In the aftermath of the assassination, the Taliban becomes more violent, blowing up schools across Pakistan that offer educations to girls as well as boys. Ziauddin uses his influence to write a series of articles for Pakistani papers, in which he condemn the Taliban for their violence and cruelty, as well as their nonsensical interpretation of the Quran (Islam’s holy book).
In 2009, Ziauddin uses his contacts with the BBC to arrange for Malala to write a series of diary entries about her life under the Taliban. Malala assumes a false name for protection, and her diaries become widely read in both Pakistan and the Western world. The Taliban, meanwhile, threaten to attack all women’s schools that don’t close down. Reluctantly, Ziauddin shuts down his schools, and Malala is forced to stay home from school, too. Shortly afterwards, however, Fazlullah (the Taliban head) decides to allow girls to attend school, proving that Ziauddin’s protests and articles have been somewhat successful. Malala, encouraged by the success of her diaries, makes a small appearance in a documentary about the Taliban directed by an American journalist, Adam Ellick.
In late 2009, the Taliban enter a long war with the Pakistani government. Malala, along with the rest of her family, is forced to leave her home in the Swat Valley. Ziauddin takes his family to Islamabad for three months, and when they return, they’re relieved to find their home more or less intact. Throughout 2009, Malala continues giving interviews in which she condemns the Taliban for interfering with her education, and in 2010, she takes a trip to Islamabad, accompanied by Shiza Shahid, a journalist and friend of her father. In the city, Malala sees women with educations and successful careers—this experience is enormously inspiring to her.
In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, Malala learns that she’s been nominated for an international award recognizing commitment to children’s rights. While she does not win, she’s nominated for further humanitarian awards in recognition of her broadcasts and diary, and wins several of them. She meets important heads of state, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan. As her reputation grows, she continues to oppose the Taliban. The Taliban threaten to kill Malala if she persists in her denunciations.
The narrative then comes full-circle to Malala’s shooting. In the aftermath of the attempt on her life, Malala is rushed to a military hospital, where a skilled surgeon, Colonel Junaid, tries to save her life. He succeeds in performing a difficult brain surgery on Malala, and Malala at first seems to be making a full recovery. While her parents and friends frantically wait for news, two British doctors, Dr. Javid Kayani and Dr. Fiona Reynolds, arrive at the hospital. They insist that Malala is in danger of losing her life, since the facilities at the Pakistani hospital are sub-par. After much negotiating, General Kayani, an important government official, agrees to arrange for Malala to be transported to superior medical facilities in Birmingham, England. Malala is flown to England while her parents remain behind—the Pakistan government delays their travel for fear that they’ll try to remain in England.
Malala wakes up in the hospital in England. Dr. Reynolds acts as her legal guardian while Ziauddin and Tor Pekai struggle to fly to England. After nearly a week, the government of Pakistan relents and allows them to visit their recovering daughter. In England, they’re immensely relieved to learn that Malala will make a full recovery, though she’ll need to spend a long time in the hospital.
As she waits in the hospital, Malala learns that she’s become globally famous following her shooting. Heads of state and celebrities send her flowers, and other humanitarians, inspired by her example, speak out against the Taliban’s brutality. Malala resolves to use her fame to crusade for education and women’s rights on a global scale.
The book ends in 2013. Malala’s family has taken up residence in England. Ziauddin works as a consultant for both Pakistan’s educational system and the committee on education for the United Nations. Malala attends school in Birmingham, focusing on her studies in spite of her enormous fame. She feels more than a little uncomfortable in her new country, not least because her classmates think of her as a celebrity, not a classmate. Nevertheless, Malala has emerged from her shooting stronger and more determined to fight injustice than ever. As the book ends, she reminds readers that they are lucky to be alive and to be loved by God. Though the Taliban tried to kill her, she concludes, they couldn’t kill the global crusade for education and equality.