But within minutes, one Taliban gunman stopped the vehicle while another climbed aboard and shot her in the head. The reason: She was an outspoken advocate for girls' education.
"My world has changed so much," the 16-year-old, whose new memoir I Am Malala was published Tuesday, tells PEOPLE. "But I have not."
Amid speculation that she may win the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded Friday, Malala continues her recovery, now living in Birmingham, England, with her father, Ziauddin, 44, himself an activist for education (and former school principal); her mother, a homemaker; and her two younger brothers, ages 13 and 8.
After her near-death experience, part of Malala's skull was replaced by a titanium plate, and she has a cochlear implant in her left ear. Further necessary surgery on her jaw has been delayed until she turns 18.
She also continues to work with physical therapists and often thinks of the beautiful hometown she left behind, the place she calls "the most beautiful place in the world. … "I don't know when I will see it again, but I know I will."
As for being the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Malala says that whether or not she is honored, she believes the focus of her life is to make sure every child has the opportunity for an education.
"[The awards] only remind me how much work still needs to be done," she says.
For more of PEOPLE's interview with Malala, including her plans for the future and photographs of her family, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Reporting by LIZ CORCORAN