The triumphant return of Rebel Girls: We are proud our book has become a symbol of resistance’

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo share how sexism in Silicon Valley inspired their wildly successful feminist primer Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, and reveal who has made it into book two

Theres a book my younger daughter asks me to read to her every night. Over the years Ive recited The Gruffalo, voyaged with her to Narnia and opened the door to The Secret Garden. But this book is different, because when I put it down and turn off her light, she sometimes says: I want to be in it.

It will come as no surprise that the book is Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallos Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of 100 tales of extraordinary women that has become a publishing sensation. It is the most successful new title in the history of crowdfunding, has sold more than a million copies, been translated into dozens of languages and has prompted a slew of copycat efforts. Now Rebel Girls 2 is coming out in the UK, with a podcast to follow next month.

Rachel
Rachel Carson, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins, in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2.

The book was born of the frustration felt by Favilli and Cavallo at the lack of role models for girls in fiction and film. They decided to offer alternative fairytales to those of Cinderella and Rapunzel, who pine for their princes. So once upon a time there were female scientists, judges, athletes, writers, musicians and politicians, all with remarkable stories. Rosa Parks shares the pages with Cleopatra, the pirate Grace OMalley, Oprah Winfrey and Ada Lovelace. May these brave pioneers inspire you, the preface of the first volume urges its readers, to build a world where gender will not define how big you can dream. Every day the authors, who are Italian but live in the US, receive messages from parents who thank them for transforming their childrens experience of literature. When I meet them at their house in Los Angeles, they mention a typical letter from a seven-year-old girl who had been talking to classmates about what they would like to be when they grew up. A surgeon, the girl said. To which a boy scoffed that no surgeons were women. She wasnt angry, Cavallo points out, but simply said to us: Im sure he hasnt read Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

There are plenty of childrens novels featuring powerful female characters from Madeline and Pippi Longstocking to Anne Shirley and Hermione Granger. But Favilli and Cavallo were particularly concerned with the cultural life of younger kids. The situation is changing, but even last month the Observer reported that male characters are still twice as likely to take leading roles in childrens picture books. The Washington Post has noted that in a story as witty and original as Drew Daywalts The Day the Crayons Quit not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. And its significant that most readers simply dont notice. (The main character, Duncan, does have a little sister: she takes the under-used pink crayon to colour in a princess and is praised for staying within the lines.)

Favilli and Cavallo were not only alert to these gender imbalances but wanted to write accounts of real women theirs is a non-fiction revolution. They argue that young readers arent interested only in dragons or princesses. According to Cavallo, it matters to show kids that these women are real, even though they probably wont encounter them in the school curriculum Weve always wanted to celebrate work as the magic power that can transform the world.

But they were determined not to assemble a worthy gallery of historical notables: Our perspective is different, Cavallo says, we wrote stories that would spark a childs imagination We wanted to invite kids to a world of wonder a wonder that lives in reality. In choosing the subjects, they sought larger than life moments. For example, we researched the lives of many female chefs. But when we found out that Julia Child started her career as a wartime spy, cooking anti-shark cakes to keep them away from bombs intended for German U-boats, we knew she was the right choice.

Similarly, Coco Chanels entry begins with her learning to sew with the black-and-white material used for nuns habits, while Lella Lombardi, the Italian Formula One driver, learned to race behind the wheel of her fathers meat-delivery van. In volume two, Audrey Hepburn is introduced with the detail of her being so hungry as a young girl in Holland that she ate tulips.

The selection makes the books fun alive and forward-looking. Favilli and Cavallo are eager to showcase diverse women from all countries, so that every girl could find someone who reminded them of their own circumstances. And they mine the present as well as the past. Elizabeth I is included, but so is Yusra Mardini, the Syrian Olympic swimmer born in 1998 who, as a refugee fleeing the civil war, pushed her leaking, crowded boat for hours in the Mediterranean to a safe shore. Volume two includes not only women whose omission from the first surprised the worldwide community of Rebel Girls readers JK Rowling, Beyonc but subjects suggested by supporters and friends, including the Asian American firefighter Sarinya Srisakul and Katia Krafft, the French volcanologist who dreamed of riding in a boat down a lava flow.

My daughter says shes so drawn to the books because they show women can be strong and not obey men. Her favourites include Artemisia Gentileschi and Maria Callas, but I always hope shell turn to the revolutionary Colombian spy Policarpa Salavarrieta (1795-1817). Facing execution, La Pola cursed the Spaniards rather than repeating priests prayers, refused to kneel for the firing squad and yelled with her dying breath: Do not forget my example. A rebel indeed.

Beyonc,
Beyonc, illustrated by Eline van Dam.

According to Cavallo, her mother would have no hesitation in saying that I was always a rebel girl. In family lore, her first word was No, and her kindergarten teacher demanded extra payment. She grew up in Lizzano, Puglia, which, if you imagine Italy as a boot, is the heel, far from the Italy of postcards or the imagination of foreigners. When playing outside, she was warned to mind the syringes but I had a passion for turning nothing into something.

Favilli, who has worked as a journalist, was raised amid the vineyards and olive trees of the Tuscan hills. She was the only child in a tiny village, which was a lonely experience but one that taught me to be independent and in charge of my life. Her mother, a doctor, was a strong role model, a woman who was working and studying and making things happen.

They first met in Milan, when Cavallo had begun a career as a stage director and playwright she was in a production of Tolstoys Hadji Murat and dressed as a male warrior. But she already knew of Favilli, having read her blog, which detailed her year spent studying abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. It was beautiful, I fell in love, Cavallo recalls. Now in their mid-30s, they have been a couple for a decade and entered into a civil partnership in 2016.

They began work on what became a childrens media company, Timbuktu Labs, and eventually won awards that sent them to San Francisco the world of startups and Silicon Valley financing. Our first editorial project was an iPad news magazine for kids, Favilli says. So a connection to the real world has always been at the core of our work.

At first, they were thrilled to be in the Bay Area, among people who were at the forefront of innovation. But the bro culture of Silicon Valley became oppressive: We were always the only women in the room. We kept hearing that two girls alone will never raise serious capital and we werent drawn to the social activities. They both remember reading, in 2013, Facebooks Sheryl Sandbergs Lean In, which calls for women to be more assertive in the workplace, and thinking how her ideas reflected their experience. In Cavallos words: We felt: Why do our male colleagues look so sure of themselves when they walk into meetings? She talks of growing up in a world in which she was told in so many different ways that I wasnt supposed to be ambitious, to be confident.

In 2015 Favilli wrote an article on Silicon Valley sexism for the Guardian. She was shocked at many of the below-the-line comments and received a death threat on Twitter: Its online, so at first you think its nothing, but its not nothing its scary.

The response to the article, Favilli says, pushed me even more to think that our next project should target girls and give them a strong, empowering message. The books are definitely connected to their Silicon Valley years: We always say that Rebel Girls comes from a very personal place, but it is not just joyful and celebratory it is also a place of pain.

Having failed to attract further investment in their startup, and unimpressed with their experience of traditional publishing, Favilli and Cavallo by now in LA turned to crowdfunding. The story of how much money they eventually raised on Kickstarter and Indiegogo ($1m in pre-sales) has been told many times. The press loved how the two entrepreneurs had outwitted corporations and built a following with their book illustrated by 70 female artists and the plaudits kept coming.

Beatrix
Beatrix Potter, illustrated by Barbara Dziadosz.

Not every reader has been smitten. A few reviewers have rolled their eyes at the projects were on a journey inspirational language. More have criticised the inclusion in the first volume of Aung San Suu Kyi, given the Rohingya persecution, and Margaret Thatcher. Defending Thatchers inclusion, Cavallo stresses that they wanted to stay away from saints, religious or secular: We study men in history even if they were far from perfect girls are taught to be likeable at all times, and that is one of the strongest limits we place on the leadership of women.

The book, its authors feel, captured a moment in history. During its launch year, 2016, something was building. Hillary Clintons presidential campaign was, for us, a catalyst. We felt Rebel Girls was so needed, so timely. Clinton was included in the first volume. (The politician has written to the authors to thank them for fighting gender stereotypes.)

Rebel Girls is bigger than us, its authors insist it takes its place in a wider conversation that includes the #MeToo movement. Among the protesters who took to American streets last month for the Womens March (marking a year since the inauguration of President Trump) were some who held Rebel Girls signs. We are proud that our book has become a symbol of resistance, Cavallo says.

For Favilli, seeing the protest signs had an even bigger effect: Honestly, I was speechless. When people use your title as a hashtag to describe themselves, and then its displayed on signs on a march, it means your work has really become a part of the public imagination

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 will be published by Timbuktu on 28 February. To order a copy for 21.25 (RRP 25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontThe triumphant return of Rebel Girls: We are proud our book has become a symbol of resistance’

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