First published on 23rd June, 2017 in The Star
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women
By Elena Favilli and Francesa Cavallo
(Particular Books, 212 pages)
Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, the creators of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, wished to address the lack of strong female role models in children’s literature. They noticed how books and popular media were full of gender stereotypes, which they felt they could challenge with their book.
Favilli and Cavallo crowdfunded their project and ended up raising over a million dollars. The result is an illustrated book featuring the stories of 100 women who have made a mark in their respective fields, be it literature or politics, sports or science. These women are “rebels” because they challenged stereotypes, overcame odds of all sorts and didn’t take “No” for answer.
While I welcome the publication of Rebel Girls and its celebration of strong, smart and brave women, I can’t help but wonder how the average middle class Malaysian parent (who has conniptions over the mere thought of their precious child taking the train from Klang to Subang Jaya) will feel about the likes of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (detained, interrogated, beaten, poisoned and, finally, shot dead), Columbia spy Policarpa Salavarrieta (executed by firing squad) and American ballerina Misty Copeland (petitioned to be emancipated from her mother whom she felt was standing in the way of becoming a dancer) being held up as role models.
However, any controversial and unpleasant aspects of these women’s lives are left out of the narratives. Instead, these authors keep things simple and brief, glossing over less palatable details, and presenting the stories in the style of fairytales. In most cases, they even begin with the familiar phrase “Once upon a time”. Unfortunately, condensing complex life stories means that much of the liveliness and excitement is cut out of them.
The achievements of the 100 women are the focus, but some might argue that although they are all accomplished and sucessful, some of the chosen women (for example, Evita Peron, Coco Chanel and Margaret Thatcher) had rather checkered careers and have left dubious legacies. Perhaps Favilli and Cavallo did not see these individuals as problematic.
I am also not terribly impressed by the fact that women from the United States dominate this book. There are 30 of them and 27 from Europe. Compare that with 15 from the whole of Asia, 10 from Africa, nine from the North American countries, six from South America, and three from the continent of Australia. Of the 10 Africans, two are Egyptian pharaohs! Could Favilli and Cavallo really not come up with an Egyptian woman who wasn’t an ancient ruler? They need only to have googled “inspiring Egyptian women” and they’d have been spoilt for choice. It seems to me that it was perhaps hard for them to shake their exoticised idea of Egyptian women.
As for the Asian women, I was disappointed, not only by the low number featured, but also the choice. Only one South-east Asian makes the grade: Aung San Suu Kyi, from Burma; while there are two each from India, China and Japan, and one each from the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
Asia is the largest of the continents; it comprises 49 countries, but the “rebel girls” from Asia are from just 11 of them.
I feel that more research should have been done to ensure that a wider range of nationalities and careers were represented. If this book is supposed to celebrate women then variety would not hurt it.
What I like the best about the book are the illustrations: strikingly beautiful; some highly unusual, in a variety of styles and mediums. I would have liked to see more Asian artists featured, but of the 60, there are only two from South-east Asia (Kathrin Honesta from Indonesia; and Geraldine Sy from the Philippines), two from India (Samidha Gunjal and Priya Kuriyan) and one from Israel (Noa Snir). Once again, the States and Europe dominate. Favilli and Cavallo could definitely have done better.
Having produced this anti-princess book, the creators of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls must realise that girls need to see not just more strong women in their bedtime stories, but also more strong women from more places in this world.