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Balancing the book shelves: Anneke Rautenbach interviews women who are creating more diverse stories for children

Anneke Rautenbach writes for the Sunday Times

Good Night Stories for RebelsGood Night Stories for Rebels
Various (Penguin Random House)

“Daughters can also be heroic.” If there is a maxim that Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo – co-founders of the children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs – live by, it’s this line by the 18th-century Chinese poet and astronomer, Wang Zhenyi. They would stake their career on it.

Wang is one of 100 women – including Ada Lovelace, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller and Miriam Makeba – whose sumptuously illustrated biographies make up Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book created by Favilli and Cavallo and published by Penguin Random House in April. It chimes with a moment when parents and children across the world are demanding more diverse and positive representation – of gender, race, and sexual orientation – in children’s literature. Nothing speaks to this more than the project’s success on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo: having raised more than $1-million, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has become the most highly funded original book in crowd-funding history.

The 30-something Italian duo say Donald Trump’s election in November gave their project a greater sense of urgency. About a month before, The Washington Post revealed the video in which the future president brags that his celebrity status allows him to do “whatever he wants” to women – even “grab them by the p**sy”.

“So many people have thanked us,” says Favilli. “The book represents not only a collection of bedtime stories, but a set of values that are now in danger.”

In a recent article for The Guardian, Favilli and Cavallo quoted the kinds of statistics that have galvanised them since starting Timbuktu Labs: by the time girls are six, they already perceive themselves as intellectually inferior to boys, according to the journal Science; and a survey by the University of Florida of children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 revealed that 25% of them had no female characters at all and 37% had none who spoke.

“Children’s media lacks diversity not only in terms of gender,” says Cavallo. “We looked for women from countries that are not usually represented, and we wanted to feature as many fields as possible.”

One of the first stories in the book belongs to Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates. The book also features the story of Coy Mathis, a transgender girl who, in 2013 at age six, won a landmark case when a Colorado judge ruled in favour of her choice to use the bathroom she prefers.

A little closer to home, Buhle Ngaba, 26, a stage actress from North West, wrote The Girl Without A Sound specifically for black girls – “the ones with moonlight in her skin”. Originally intending to create a gift for her aunt who read her stories and nursery rhymes as a child, she found that she had written the fairy tale that was missing from her childhood – “about a little girl who looks like me.” Ngaba’s character isn’t waiting for a prince to save her.

“She simply goes out in search of a sound of her own.”

Ngaba, who is also the founder of KaMatla, a non-profit arts organisation that develops storytelling among underprivileged youth, describes her publishing model as the reverse of crowd-funding. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but just got the book out there.”

A team of talented friends helped to edit, promote and illustrate the story using a combination of drawing and photography. In February last year, a free PDF was made available online in English and Tswana. Within the first week, 3000 copies had been downloaded.

“I liked that you could print it yourself,” says Ngaba. “Because that means any little girl can do it.”

They have since received support from the Centre for Early Childhood Development. A month after the online launch, printed copies were made available, and more South African language translations are in the pipeline.

The response has been extraordinary, adds Ngaba, especially from black women. “We didn’t even know we were missing ourselves.”

Ngaba sees her book as part of movement towards fairer representation in local fiction, always tagging her social media posts #booksforblackgirls. But by no means does this mean that children of other races can’t enjoy it too, she says. “It’s a self-love thing. It’s simply about balancing the bookshelves.”

Similarly, Rebel Girls is not about excluding boys. “Girls are used to being the guests in other books,” says Cavallo. “We identify with Sherlock Holmes, with Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Superman. People often ask us when we are going to make a book for rebel boys – this is the book for rebel boys.”

Crowdfunded books that are making waves

•The Princess Who Saved Herself by Greg Pak, about a rock ‘n’ roll princess and her pet snake. It “reinvents the princess myth for a new generation of proactive girls”. With a $15000 goal, it has raised $111759.

•Wollstonecraft by Airship Ambassador. A “Snicketesque” fictional adventure for 8- to 12-year-olds, featuring Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science-fiction author. With a $4000 goal, it has raised $91751.

•Flamingo Rampant by S Bear Bergman. A racially and body-diverse series about LGBT2Q families and their children, in which girls and women are “problem-solvers and action-takers”. The latest in the series has raised $70305 with a $63000 goal.

Q&A with Ambre Nicolson, author of the crowdfunded An A to Z of AmaZing South African Women – forthcoming from Modjaji Books

Was this book inspired by Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls?
It was actually inspired by the American book Rad American Women A-Z. I saw the book two years ago and immediately wished there was a local version. When I realised there wasn’t, and on a dare from a friend, I decided to make one – with permission from the American publisher, City Lights, and support from the local female-centred publisher, Modjaji Books. Our book does share one thing with Rebel Girls, and that is that the makers of both books wanted to create the book we wished we had when we were young.

Why now?
At a time when the idea that women’s rights are human rights seems so imperiled, it feels like any project that recognises women as multi-faceted, powerful protagonists is urgently needed. Particularly in South Africa, with its troubled history and terrible record of gender inequality and gender-based violence, I think too often women are presented as one of several stereotypes: the tragic heroine, the angry humourless banshee, the sexpot. I think it’s important to provide stories that show South African women in all their complexity – this is what we hope to do with our book.

How did you choose the women for each letter?
Choosing only one woman for each letter of the alphabet was an almost impossible task. For every one woman featured, we debated dozens of others. Trying to showcase a breadth of human endeavour as well as ensure that the demographics of the women featured reflect the reality of South Africa made the selection process all the more complex. But what a wonderful problem to have! Beyond trying to showcase the diversity of amazing South African women, we also wanted to make sure we didn’t just choose the usual suspects. The question we asked ourselves was always, “Is she a badass?” As a result I like to think we featured a healthy amount of rebels, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. These are women refuse to sit down and keep quiet. Not one of them “knows their place” I’m very happy to say.

What else unites these women?
I have been humbled by so many stories of resourcefulness and resilience and compassion. Looking at these stories as a whole certain themes also emerged: The women in our book are all united by experiencing adversity, in fact often this was essential to their development, as well as having a certain bloody-minded persistence.

What do you think of the potential of crowd-funding as a publishing model?
When it comes to books, I think crowd-funding is an exciting way to create interest around a project, while at the same time allowing people to pre-order copies. Arthur Attwell, [co-founder of Book Dash, a grassroots children’s publishing initiative] recently put it well: “Crowd-funded publishing is no longer an unusual way to fund important books. This is the way it’s going to happen, and it turns every one of us into talent-spotting publishing investors.”

Is this book by women for women? Or is it for everyone?
This book is about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends. So I do think it is for everyone. I think it should be a book that you buy for the amazing woman or women in your life. But if I could choose just one person to give this book to it would be that 13 or 14-year-old girl who is just starting to figure out who she is in the world. I would like her to know that the South African women who went before her are truly amazing.

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