Book review: Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

This is the kids’ book you wish you wrote (and we know that because we do, too)

Some things are so stunningly obvious, it doesn’t make sense that the world existed before they did. Adding pickles to meat, cheese and bread, and calling it a burger: genius. Taking a dress and giving it pockets: poetry in motion. And taking the life stories of brilliant, groundbreaking, fearless women and packaging them as short, fairytale-like stories for kids? Seriously, why did nobody think of it sooner?

That’s the premise of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: using the biographies of 100 courageous, world-altering women, authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo craft easily digestible (but no less powerful for it) tales for young girls. Favilli and Cavallo, who raised record amounts of money on Kickstarter to fund the project, have a knack for nailing the bravery, wit and originality of the women they’ve profiled in a way that is instantly relatable for their young readers. In Hillary Rodham Clinton’s story, for instance, readers are introduced to the former Secretary of State through a story about bullying. Grace O’Malley, a 16th century Irish woman, is told she’s not allowed to be part of the family business (er, that’d be pirating) because she’s a girl and her skirts might get in the way; she promptly begins wearing pants and becomes a swashbuckling heroine. Mathematician Ada Lovelace has a bright idea that she thinks will change the world: a machine that can count for you. Each story is told simply and directly, and in this way, the messages of the book are clear, but not preachy, and many are more relevant than ever (Rodham Clinton’s mother’s insistence that she go out and face her bullies seems an especially prescient message today, for example).

While the stories of the remarkable women are truly captivating, it’s the combination of the tales with their accompanying illustrations that really knocks your socks off. Each illustration was commissioned to one of 60 different female artists from all over the world, and each represents its subject in its individual style, in a way that’s not kitschy but honors the woman. Architect Zaha Hadid’s portrait is angular and modernist-looking; Hedy Lamarr’s is Art Deco-esque.

And in a world where it’s big news when a Disney character has brown skin (or hair), the profiles in Rebel Girls are fantastically diverse. There are women from history (Catherine the Great, who looks so sumptuous and powerful in her portrait, I’d be inclined to kill my husband, too) and women who are making history today (like Malala Yousafzai). There are women whose names precede them (the Williams sisters) and women who you’ll be thrilled to learn about (like Sonita Alizadah, an Afghani rapper, and the Mirabal Sisters of the Dominican Republic). There are transgender women (like the book’s youngest Rebel, Coy Matthews) and women of color (and not just token representations, either – everyone from Jamaica’s Nanny of the Maroons to Misty Copeland is there). There are women from all over the world: from the United States (like Maya Angelou) to Sierra Leone (Michaela de Prince). There are women who excelled in art, writing, science, business, politics, sport and entertainment, and women who may not have pursued an ambitious career but nonetheless changed the world somehow (to wit: pioneering tattoo artist Maud Stevens Wagner). In other words, there is something for everyone here.

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that it’s targeted at girls. While it’s so important for young girls to see a wide range of heroes to admire and emulate, it’s equally important for young boys to know that girls and women are just as capable of being those heroes. These are fun, entertaining stories for readers of any gender, and their lessons – like letting go of the fears that hold you back, speaking your mind and having the courage of your convictions – are important for us all to learn, no matter who we are.