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A Beautiful World: Sleep on, princesses, while the ‘Rebel Girls’ wake up

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An illustration of Kahlo in a blue dress before a rose pattern background
Frida Kahlo, with illustration by Helena Morais Soares
Courtesy of Timbuktu Publishing, illustration by Helena Morais Soares

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” is not a typical book of fairy tales. Authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo say the stories in the book are all true, about real women around the world who accomplished amazing things.

The authors got their idea for the book after hearing actor Geena Davis speak about gender inequality in children's media. Davis said her institute, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, commissioned the largest body of research ever done on gender in film and television, covering a 20-year span. The results were stunning: Davis discovered there were far fewer female characters in children's media, one female to every three males. And the females she did find were not very realistic.

“Often the female character’s waist is so tiny that you have to wonder, could you fit a spinal column in there?” Davis said. “And one of the most common occupations for female characters in G-rated movies was royalty, which is a nice gig if you can get it.”

Cover of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Courtesy of Timbuktu Publishing

When Favilli and Cavallo heard these statistics, they decided to do something about it. They wrote “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls,” a children's book packed with bedtime stories about the lives of 100 extraordinary women from the past and present, illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world.

The stories portray Queen Elizabeth, Serena Williams, Eva Peron and the first female African-American astronaut, Mae Jemison, to name just a few. They include women from modern history and from the ancient past.

Favilli said there is one story she particularly loves, about a female pharaoh. “Her name was Hatshepsut, and she was a very successful leader,” she said. “But after her death they tried to destroy her memory. Her statues were smashed and every living memory of her reign and over her life was basically destroyed, because everyone was scared that other women could then, based on her example, try to seek power.”

Favilli said this is symbolic of the stories they try to capture and the women they write about: women who might be lost to history, or overlooked in faraway countries.

Francesca Cavallo said her favorite story is about a group of more modern-day women -- the Black Mambas. “They’re a group of female rangers that have revolutionized the way they patrol national parks in South Africa,” she said.

Cover of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2
Courtesy of Timbuktu Publishing

The group’s 26 members patrol nature preserves and protect endangered animals by working together and collaborating. It’s a concept that, Cavallo said, shatters the typical female stereotype in most fairy tales.

“Women in traditional fairy tales are rivals, and they can’t stand each other,” she said. “They try to kill each other. Instead, in our books, women collaborate and do all sorts of incredible things. That’s one of the aspects of our books that I'm most proud of.”

Two women, Favilli and Cavallo, stand side by side smiling.
Timbuktu founders Elena Favilli (l.) and Francesca Cavallo
Courtesy of Karsten Lemm and Timbuktu Publishing

According to Elena Favilli, there's one thing that all the women in their book have in common:

“Perseverance was something that all these women had to nurture and stick to, because it wasn't easy for any of them,” she said. “No matter how smart they were, or how passionate they were, nothing came easy. They had to struggle and fight to see their talent recognized, to see their discoveries recognized.”

Besides the books, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” has a podcast that features a new rebel girl every week.