By Nicole Fuge
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has become an institution, with the books taking pride of place on many bookshelves around the world. So it’s no surprise Elena Favilli is a fierce, fierce lady who is on a mission to balance power and create a more equal world.
“Part of the Rebel Girls mantra is in encouraging young girls to pursue their interests, allowing them to explore wildly. If your child is sparked by something, anything, nurture their interest. Let it grow. Give your child the freedom to discover their passions. We’ve approached a time in which girls are given more opportunity, yet still, we see countless instances of gender stereotyping. The more we normalise the pursuit of all careers for children, the more we will as a whole in society.”
The idea for Rebel Girls came in 2011, after a survey of 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 found that 37% lacked even one single speaking female character. So Elena dug deeper and found that, by the age of six, girls already think that they are less capable than boys. WTF?
On the back of the success of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Elena is releasing chapter books, with five kickass titles in the series. The first two – Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code and Madam C. J. Walker Builds a Business – drop today (12 November). The third and fourth books about Kenyan environmentalist and activist Wangari Maathai (the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize) and Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei (the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest) will be out next year.
1 // What did you want to be when you grew-up?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a journalist and later on, I did become one! I grew up as the only kid in a small village in Tuscany. I spent a lot of time surrounded by the amazing women in my family, but being the only kid can be lonely. So, I read a lot and I was very observant of the people around me, which naturally led me on the path to journalism. I was lucky I found it, because in a small village, you are only exposed to so many career paths. Part of my drive to write Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls was to show young girls that their opportunities are limitless.
2 // Who was your biggest source of inspo when you had the original idea for Rebel Girls?
The first book released in 2016 which was an election year in America. I was feeling inspired, seeing a woman at the forefront of an election for the first time – a powerful woman who wasn’t fazed by negative commentary. She just kept pushing along. In the previous year, I had experienced the sexist culture in Silicon Valley. I was frequently brushed aside and subliminally told that I would not succeed as a woman. The combination of these two experiences made me want to write about strong women, and dedicate a book solely to their accomplishments, proving to the world just how resilient women can be.
3 // What defines a ‘rebel girl’?
A ‘rebel girl’ means living on your own terms and resisting society’s expectations. Most women face some sort of sexism on a daily basis. Being a rebel is about finding a way of surviving, succeeding against the odds, and making the most out of your circumstances. The rebel girls featured in these books are not perfect women but, in their lifetimes, they have achieved something extraordinary. They show us that real women can achieve incredible goals and, like all of us, are still subject to difficulties along the way.
4 // Who is at the top of your ‘wish list’ to feature in one of your books?
There are so many amazing women, I couldn’t begin to narrow my wish list down to one. We receive submissions from fans all the time, and our team is always on the lookout for women who have done incredible things. But, being an immigrant, it was at the top of my wish list to feature more immigrant women. I got my wish! We’re releasing Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World next Autumn (Spring in Australia). It will feature women like Madeleine Albright, Lisa Sthalekar and Rihanna, all of whom have been on our lists and were recommended by fans.
5 // What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt along the way – in creating this game changing brand?
Test your product, to ensure there is interest but simultaneously, don’t be afraid to try something different. Readers immediately latched on to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls because nothing like it had ever been produced. Big publishers are scared to do things differently, scared to experiment with new business models. In fact, we decided to publish the upcoming chapter books, Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business, and Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code, because we already tested the product in a sense. Both women were already popular among our readers. We also sent a questionnaire around and there was unanimous interest in a chapter book series.
6 // How much of the chapter books are based on real-life events?
These are fictionalised biographies based on real events in the subject’s lives – we conducted a thorough research process for both books. On Ada Lovelace, our editorial team first read four biographies on her life. Then, one of our writers travelled to Oxford and read a multitude of Ada’s archived, handwritten letters. She also went to the London Science Museum to review the analytical engine, and visited the estates of Ada and Charles Babbage. On Madam C.J. Walker, one of our writers already had a close relationship with her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. A’Lelia has written about her great-great-grandmother in biographies, and reviewed our final manuscript. We also researched the peripheral characters in each story, to ensure we had a developed understanding of their character. Annie Turnbo, Booker T. Washington, Charles Babbage and Lady Byron were all given extensive attention.
7 // For all of the young rebel girls out there who read and love your books, what is your message to them?
Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. When I embarked upon researching the 100 women we featured in the first book, I found one element to be common among them. All of these women were told, at some point in their lives, that their pursuits could not be achieved because they were women. Being a girl is still not easy. There are still people out there who doubt girls, who think that boys can do better. My message to every girl out there is, prove them wrong! If you have a curiosity, do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
8 // Why do you feel the need for Rebel Girls is so important in 2019?
These books are still necessary because there is a shortage of female voices in children’s literature and popular culture: the majority of books and TV shows we had growing up lacked female characters in leading roles. Recent research shows that a quarter of the top 100 bestselling illustrated children’s books in 2018 portrayed only white people. Even when they did include characters who were female or from BAME backgrounds, those characters were much less likely to speak than white, male characters; almost 70% of the books with illustrations of BAME characters featured them only in non-speaking roles. The fight for change continues! As well as fighting systemic imbalances in equality, we recognise the ongoing need to redefine femininity in line with our changing world. There are plenty of brands who continue to reinforce the status quo, and we want to show girls that they have boundless potential. As well as being princesses and fairies, they can be rock stars, physicists, CEOs, firefighters and secret agents. By featuring role models who challenge conceptions of what it means to be female, we can offer them alternative visions of success.