How two ‘rebel girls’ shook up the publishing world


  • Books
  • Monday, 31 Dec 2018

Frustrated

with children’s stories of passive princesses and damsels in distress, two Italian women crowdfunded their way into publishing history with a record- breaking book of inspirational tales for "rebel girls".

And their revolution has only just begun.

The first volume of Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo was a global sensation, selling more than three million copies with translations in 46 languages in the year it was published.

The 2016 book, telling the life stories of 100 extraordinary women ranging from US author Maya Angelou to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Polish-born scientist Marie Curie, was born out of necessity, Cavallo said.

“Most books don’t feature girls in roles where they take charge of their destiny. In most children’s books, when there are female characters, they don’t speak,” Cavallo said during an interview at the 2018 Frankfurt book fair in Germany.

“We want girls to grow up with the certainty that they can choose the life they want. And never apologise for being too assertive, too ambitious or too brave.”

The Rebel Girls series of books for children aim to empower girls
‘Most children’s books don’t feature girls in roles where they take charge of their destiny’ says Cavallo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/HANAREBELGIRLS

Cavallo, 35, and Favilli, 36, who both live in the United States now, were determined to change the gender imbalance on bookshelves – despite having no publishing experience.

“That’s our rebel spirit,” Cavallo laughed.

The duo had already founded a children’s media company in California called Timbuktu Labs, which created the first iPad magazine for children.

But to bring out a print book, they turned to crowdfunding, setting their goal at a modest US$40,000 (RM166,000 at today’s rates). They raised over US$600,000 (RM2.5mil), making it the highest funded book ever on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

Their second volume of bedtime stories in 2017 smashed that record, raising over US$900,000 (RM3.7mil).

The huge appetite for the books blindsided the traditional publishing industry, spawning a raft of copycat versions as publishers scramble to catch up with demand for empowering stories about women.

The Rebel Girls series of books for children aim to empower girls
Favilli co-authors the ‘Rebel Girls’ book series with Cavallo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/HANAREBELGIRLS

At the opening of the Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest publishing event, director Juergen Boos cited the Rebel Girls chronicles as an example of how publishing is changing.

“We are seeing new ways that literature is being created, bought and received,” Boos said.

The second Rebel Girls book, which sold over 600,000 copies in about eight months, again offers one-page bios of 100 strong women, written in a fairytale-style and paired with a colourful, illustrated portrait.

Singer Beyonce and media mogul Oprah Winfrey are among those featured.

Cavallo said it was “no coincidence” the books are so successful at a time when women’s voices are growing louder and the #MeToo movement has taken the world by storm, sparking a global debate about sexual harassment.

“We are experiencing a moment in history when women are determined to see women’s rights at the front and centre of the political agenda,” Cavallo said.

“It’s probably the best time in history to be a rebel girl. But there is still so much to do.”

The crowdfunding campaign for the third Rebel Girls book launched in September 2018 and the target was reached in just eight hours. I Am A Rebel Girl: A Journal To Start Revolutions, a companion to the earlier two books and published in November 2018, is an interactive “journal to starting a revolution”.

The authors have also branched out into podcasts, using famous voices to read out extended versions of some of the biographies.

Billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates is one of the narrators, as is New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor who co-wrote the expose that first revealed the sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and helped start the #MeToo movement.

But what Cavallo and Favilli insist they won’t do is expand their brand into rebel books for boys.

“We feel it's very important for boys to read books where they are not in the title. Girls have done that their whole lives,” Cavallo said.

“And a lot of boys tell us they love our stories. Many parents still feel they can’t give boys a book about girls. But that’s changing too.” – AFP Relaxnews

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