Listen to Their Voices: Nurturing Young Activists

by Lantana Publishing on July 12, 2021
Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Lee & Low, 2019)


On Malala Day, author Karen Leggett Abouraya (Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words) writes about the amazing impact Malala's words and actions have had on the world and shares ways we can nurture the same spark for activism in our young people.

Malala Yousafzai began advocating for girls’ education in a BBC blog when she was just 11 years old.  On July 12 of this year, she will be 24– as passionate, determined and outspoken as ever on the need to improve educational opportunities around the globe.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated an already-bleak situation: 

  • 20 million more girls may never return to school because of the pandemic (Malala Fund);
  • COVID-19 is undoing 70 years of girls’ education progress in India (Global Citizen)
  • When a girl’s education is cut short, the impact can be felt for generations. It leaves a vital gap in their community, their country and the world. (UNESCO)

Nigerian girls read the Malala Fund Assembly newsletter on a cell phone (Credit: Rotimi Olawale)

Yet Malala continues to live the message she shared at the United Nations in 2013, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Malala has been an inspiration from the beginning of her international campaign. During a recent webinar, Malala reminds potential young activists that, “In the moment, you don’t know if it will have an impact, but then you receive calls from everywhere in the world that people want to join the movement; your voice can have a huge impact to raise awareness.” On the other hand, she adds, “Inaction and silence contribute. When we don’t bring attention to these issues, then things continue as they are.”

The powerful and rhythmic “I Am Malala” song written by young artists in 2013 has been viewed half a million times. Every month, girls from around the world share their stories in the Malala Fund newsletter Assembly: Mehliya Cetinkaya writes about young women making sure the Uyghur genocide will not be forgotten.  Assembly readers Eduek and Uforo Nsentip ask Malala Fund research officer Naomi Nyamweya about the relationship between climate change and girls’ education. Melati and Isabel Wijsen began campaigning against plastic bags on their Indonesian island of Bali when they were 10 and 12 years old. Their persistence ultimately led to a ban on single-use plastics in Bali in December 2018.

In his book We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History, Phillip Hoose notes that “if you scratch any major event in U.S. history, young people are everywhere. Often they’re right in the middle of the action….Young people have acted boldly from the very beginning.”  Earlier, he had written It's Our World Too! Stories of Young People Who are Making a Difference, in which he quoted a teen activist who said, “When you’re young, you have a special ability to think about things that have been accepted for a thousand years and say, ‘We have to stop that.’”

Children often call on adults to be our better selves – urging us by their example to speak up or join a cause – especially if we listen to them as if their voices matter.

Giving Square youngsters in Maryland celebrate their own philanthropy (Credit: The Giving Square)

Children’s honesty and sincerity resonates.  Yvonne Vissing, Founding Director of the Center of Childhood and Youth Studies at Salem State University, says the children’s rights movement is a multifaceted movement that has been building for years.

“It is important,” she writes to see young people as human ‘beings,’ rather than merely human ‘becomings.’” 

I once presented my children’s book Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books to a group of third graders. The book tells the true story of protesters during the 2011 uprising who literally held hands to protect the great library in Alexandria. “What building in your town would you want to protect?” I asked the children.  An eager boy raised his hand and called out, “Chuck E. Cheese!” a party restaurant very popular with children. As I watched my high-minded expectations being swept under the nearest pizza tray, we talked about how to build a campaign to save Chuck E. Cheese: grass roots organizing, writing letters, staging protests.  

I believe there are three keys to helping children become activists who can truly change the world.

  1. Listen. Listen fully, completely and without multi-tasking on your phone. Listen even when the goal is saving a fast-food restaurant. Listen as if their voices matter – because they do. Paris Ye with the Youth Activism Project further urges adults to trust young people’s goals and aspirations.
  2. Build confidence.  Malala’s confidence-builder was her father.  Ziauddin Yousafzai said, “Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.” And he titled his own book, Let Her Fly. 
  3. Introduce children to the tools of engagement and activism – letter writing, petitions, public testimony, training. The Youth Activism Project (YAP) trains teens to be activists in their communities and offers online guides and videos. Paris Ye is a Team Lead for the YAP Activation Hub where young people can learn skills, share ideas and turn their passion into a movement.

There are opportunities for young people to join existing national or international causes, including the Malala Fund itself.  The Global Campaign for Education hosts a Youth Caucus during its World Assembly. Girl Rising began as a dramatic film of nine girls struggling against insurmountable odds for their own education; now the organization argues that the “future of our planet depends on investing in quality education for girls.” The Giving Square created an elementary school curriculum to prove that by giving “children the tools, permission and support, they will make a positive impact on our families, schools and communities, now and throughout their lives.”

Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books, by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012)

In addition to my own books of youth activism, Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books and Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words, there are many outstanding children’s books about past and present activists, many of whom began speaking up as children. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (Sean Qualls and Laurie Ann Thompson, Random House) won a Children’s Africana Book Award for the story of a boy born with one leg who learned to ride a bicycle that he rode all over Ghana, fighting the stigma against people with disabilities. Malala herself is included in Peace and Me: Inspired by the Lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (Ali Winter, illustrated by Mickael El Fathi, Lantana). Many of these laureates were inspired by childhood events to become activists later in life, including Jane Addams and Mother Theresa. 

Ziauddin Yousafzai writes in Let Her Fly that Malala “was an ordinary girl with extraordinary courage, talent and wisdom.”  She was shot because she wanted an education and was willing to say so publicly.  “Malala did not make an army,” wrote her father. “She did not raise a gun. She raised a voice, which is her right.”  And indeed the right of every child in the world.

 From Peace and Me: Inspired by the Lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates by Ali Winter and Mickaël El Fathi (Lantana)


Thank you for this inspiring piece, Karen! Learn more about Karen and her work on TwitterLearn more about Malala from Karen's book Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words 

For an introduction to the amazing Nobel Peace Prize laureates and the ways they fought for a peaceful world, check out  Peace and Me: Inspired by the Lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates 

What does peace mean to youThis illustrated collection of inspirational ideas about peace is based on the lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates of the 20th and 21st centuries, among them Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Malala Yousafzai. A must for anyone interested in exploring this essential issue of our times, this child-friendly exploration of what peace means to you and me is a book for every bookshelf.

Amnesty International endorses this book because it shows how standing up for other people makes the world a better, more peaceful place.

Blue Peter Book Awards, Best Book with Facts longlist



Karen is an American journalist and children's author. As host of a news magazine on ABC Radio in Washington D.C., she invited children to review books on the air and reviewed children's books herself for the New York Times. She has written for Voice of America, International Educator magazine, the Washington Post and many other publications. Her first nonfiction picture book Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books won numerous awards including the Children's Africana Book Award and the Arab American Book Award. She is a past president of the Children's Book Guild of Washington D.C. Karen is also a co-chair of the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee, through which she facilitates online conversations between American and Egyptian school children. She carries dual Egyptian-American citizenship.  


Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Liquid error: Could not find asset snippets/upsell-now.liquid