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Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: A Q&A with Authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Posted on 19th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"You don't have to be a boy to make extraordinary things or adventurous things. You can be adventurous enough on your own."

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo made waves when their Kickstarter project to raise money to write a collection of bedtime stories about 100 real, inspirational women became the most funded book in crowdfunding history. The resulting anthology, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls became a worldwide success. Here they discuss the genesis fof the book and the extraordinary women whose stories inspired them.

Cover Image: Illustration of Frida Kahlo from Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

How did you originally come up with the idea for this book?

Elena: We originally came up with the idea of the title. We like the idea of having the word 'Rebel' with 'Good Night Stories'. Rebel is usually considered a negative word in many different cultures and languages especially when its associated with women or young girls, so we thought it was cool to put these words together.

What kind of projects were you working on before the book?

Francesca: We created the first ipad magazine for children in the world: Timbuktu magazine, which got a lot of traction and we won a lot of awards for the design. Timbuktu Magazine was a news magazine for children. So we started with the idea from the very beginning that we would just tell real stories because children are citizens of the present, not citizens of the future and the timeline of our company has always been to promote imagination as a tool to know the world, so we've always had this mix of reality and in a way also story telling

And did you feel that there was a gap in the market for this kind of book?

Elena: We felt that there was a gap in the market, because of course, working in children's media, we've witnessed how children's books and children’s media in general are so packed with gender stereotypes.

How did you go about creating the book, particularly, how did you find the less well known women that you include in the book?

Francesca: We wanted to feature as many countries as possible in the book. And we wanted to feature as many fields as possible. So part of it was research made based on that balance, so for example we looked for women from countries that are not usually represented in children's media, because children's media don't just lack diversity in terms of gender. So we specifically looked at countries which are not usually represented in children's media and looked for notable women in those countries. And when we realised that we had too many writers for example, or too many ballerinas, looked for specific stories for women in a particular field. So by having very focused research we were able to find stories that are not mainstream – yet.

A lot of the women in it are still alive today. Have you had any responses from the women you include in the book?

Francesca: We are in touch with Eufrosina Cruz and with Ann Makosinski and Amna Al Haddad. So yeah a few of them, we hope to be in touch soon with Serena Williams.

Elena: And Hillary Clinton!

Francesca: Yeah we are in touch with Hillary Clinton. She wrote us a beautiful letter.

Anna Al-HaddadAmna Al Haddad

Are there some women you wanted to included that didn't make it into the book?

Elena: Yes, we started from a list of more than two hundred women and then we kind of selected those whose stories were more interesting for children. So that was the main criteria.

Francesca: But there were many more women that we want to include in the future.

How has creating the book affected you and your experience of writing it, and what impact do you hope it will have on the wider world?

Elena: So we always say that the experience of writing this book about these incredible women was empowering in itself because spending time with them and then researching their stories and then finding their voice, it was an incredible experience and it was made in such a short amount of time that it really felt an inspiring and empowering. What we hope that this book will allow, especially for girls, is, we usually quote one of the women in the book which is the Chinese astronomer: Wang Zhenyi, who says in one of her poems – because she was also a poet – she says that “daughters can also be heroic” right, which is something that we love very much.

Francesca: It's a message that we want to be part of the life of as many families as possible.

Elena: Yeah exactly right, you don't have to be a boy to make extraordinary things or adventurous things. You can be adventurous enough on your own.

Who inspires you?

Elena: Who inspires us? Wow. Oh there are so many people. In American politics Hillary Clinton was a big inspiration last year, so during the campaign we basically designed and launched the book together with the presidential campaign. So we really hoped that the book was going to come out at the same time as Hillary Clinton's victory.

Francesca: Marina Abramovich was a big inspiration for me, coming from performance art and, Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent was another big inspiration for us.

Was there anything touching that came out of talking to people, what was the most emotional response you've had from people to the book that made you think yes it was all worth it?

Francesca: One of the things I find very moving is that a lot of people tell us that they have to read the book by themselves before they read the book to the kids because they are too emotional when they read otherwise. So the fact that we kept it very, very simple, it's almost to the bare bones of writing, and it can still move people so much, it's really important for us because we put so much love in the stories and the fact that this love gets through the page and to the people is moving.

The other thing I found incredibly beautiful was that this kid in Milan, when we did the presentation, was this seven year old kid, boy, sitting in the front row, and as soon as the presentation began he was able to take the book up, open to the ada lovelace page and he said ‘my mum did this portrait’ and to see this little boy so proud of his mum's work. I found that made me cry. Around women who work, there is so much guilt, women are used to saying ‘yes I like my work, but I worry that my kids don't see me as much as they should’, and there is this very big cloud of guilt on women who work. To see this little boy who was so proud of his mum's work. It was fantastic for me. It's the reason why we feel that, when people ask us, when are you going to make a book for Rebel Boys? This is the book for Rebel Boys.

Do you find a lot of people questioning the word ‘girls’ in the title?

Francesca: Boys don't mind, actually. A lot of mum's have told us that their boys are like "let’s read the rebel girls book tonight" they don’t think that it means the book's not for them because they like the adventures, they like the stories and they want to read it. It's more grown-ups that are like that. Girls are used to being the guests in other books, we identify without any trouble with Sherlock Holmes with Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Superman. So it's just right to expect boys to identify with Alfonsina Strada, Lella Lombardi or Mary Anning and they do if we don't get in the way.

It's almost as if you really trust children. Sometimes they understand more than we do because we have so many biases.

Francesca: But at the same time we are very careful to respect their level of understanding of things so in the book there are a lot of stories that are not happy ending stories. So we worked with a psychiatrist that specialised in children. For example, for the Virginia Woolf story or the Anna Politkovskaya story, we were very careful. We think that creators of things for children should be careful because sometimes you either sugar-coat things and you deprive them of an opportunity of growth, or you shock them. We never want to do this, we want to look them in the eye and speak as honestly as we can, but at the same time, we feel it's our responsibility to know what they can take and how to accompany them through a story. So it’s a very delicate balance.

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is an amazing example. Because it's so well done.

Francesca: Children do suffer from depression, because for those who do, that story is very important because it can give them hope so if we ignored that then the child who suffers from depression never gets to read the story about depression, but feel that they are alone.

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