Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
Art by Ottelien Huckin
Although existing feminist curricula reflect female marginalisation and its representation in literature for adults, there is significantly less feminist study of children’s literature. The significance of this cannot be overstated: the books we read as children form our understanding of the world and it is therefore important to include children’s literature in feminist critique. As a girl who always loved to read, children’s books failed to give me insight into the reality of inequality I would face as a woman, or of the potential I had in spite of it. In fact, it wasn’t until my late teens I came across a children’s book that provided this: that book was Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (2016).
The dissimilarity of this book from those I had access to as a child compelled me to read it. I was confronted by a text that expertly articulates women’s potential and the adversities they face and provides inclusive feminist agenda to young readers. This communication of a feminist perspective to children is largely absent from current feminist study; Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls should therefore be at the vanguard of creating more rounded feminist curricula.
Favilli and Cavallo break the continuing trend of female under-representation in twentieth-century children’s literature; this positions their book at the forefront of introducing feminism to young readers. Studies published in Gender In Twentieth-Century Books found that while adult men and male animals appear in almost 100 percent of book titles published over a year, “no more than 33 percent…contain central characters who are adult women or female animals” (McCabe et al, 209). As the writers of this study note, “the messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy [or] girl” and the unequal representations of gender “point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls…suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts” (218). Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls rejects these traditions of children’s literature; as Pittman states the stories “trade princesses for women who changed the world” (Huffingtonpost.com). In doing so, the very existence of the book champions the breakdown of patriarchal norms.
The structural form Favilli and Cavallo use to articulate the struggle for gender equality deploys unique techniques to communicate feminism to children. The writers construct a series of biographical fairy tales that present the difficulties women face but stop short of frightening their readers away from undertaking similar challenges. They convey the inspiring achievements of women and encourage their readers to fearlessly engage with the world. This is achieved by adhering to the stylistic conventions of fairy tales whilst constructing a self-consciously feminist history. Over two thirds of stories begin with the idiomatic phrases “Once upon a time” or “Once there was a”, conforming to a fairy tale framework. One opening declarative: “there was a time when men believed women were put on earth only to serve them” asserts the reality of historical male dominance without straying from the fairy tale lexicon (94). Furthermore, the writers repeat proper nouns more frequently than they use pronouns to create clarity, another convention of children’s writing. For example, in the tale of Malala Yousafzai, her name is clearly stated using a declarative, “Her name was Malala” and in each subsequent paragraph the proper noun “Malala” is reasserted before the second person pronoun is introduced (104). The constant repetition of names here serves to reassert female identity. Hence, Favilli and Cavallo deploy the familiar frameworks of traditional children’s literature whilst subverting the patriarchal tendency of such stories. This makes their book immensely valuable in resisting the internalisation of patriarchy in children, a crucial factor for consideration in feminist studies of children’s literature.
The juxtaposed structure of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls works to embed a feminist message into the fabric of the text. “Grace Hopper”, Second World War computer scientist, precedes “Grace O’Malley”, Elizabethan pirate (60-62); Brazilian surfer “Maya Gabeira” follows “Maya Angelou”, feminist writer and “voice of the Civil Rights Movement” (134-136). Moving from “Cleopatra” leading Ancient Egypt to “Coco Chanel” reinventing French twentieth century fashion, the text provides a the sense of endless possibility (40-42). Favilli and Cavallo transport their readers across centuries in just a few pages, positioning a vast variety of disciplines, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds alongside one another and conveying a kind of limitless potential. This promotes an inclusive feminist agenda further encapsulated by the book’s constitution. The text is illustrated by women from all around the globe varying from the Swedish-Italian Kiki Ljung to the South African Thandiwe Tshabalala. It was also crowdfunded by an international group: as noted in the preface there was an “astonishing number of backers from more than seventy countries” (xi). This inclusive feminist children’s book therefore sets a new norm for feminist thought: if literature in childhood is our first impression of the world, and this text offers an initial impression of feminism, the inclusive feminist agenda it promotes can perhaps be considered the likely destination of feminism as it constantly evolves. Therefore, including Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls in feminist curricula can offer insight into the potential of literature to influence the feminists of the future.
It is worth noting, however, that the evocation of limitless potential can skew a child’s perception of reality, a reality in which feminism is not always intersectional and inclusive and in which racism and socio-economics create disparity between women’s opportunities. Furthermore, by creating a collection of happy-endings, the writers risk constructing a world in which women always overcome adversities rather than truly conveying the reality in which some women cannot do so, in spite of their best efforts. We must consequently accept that the text is partially flawed and that this could result in a form of feminism that fails to acknowledge the uneven struggle between women in relation to their different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
Nevertheless, at a time when male overrepresentation remains a problem in literature, a text such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is worthy of academic consideration. It is the way in which Favilli and Cavallo convey a history of resistance of gender inequality to children that gives the text relevance within feminist curricula. Although current feminist curricula include books that reflect and challenge patriarchy, they do not feature feminist children’s books, which are crucial: literature is a powerful tool in a child’s developing worldview. Therefore, when feminist children’s literature goes beyond challenging the symptoms of female marginalisation by presenting a feminist stance as the norm, they undermine the internalisation of patriarchy. When the rebel girls reading these bedtime stories see the vast potential of women, and the persistent adversities they face, they are being taught to expect and subsequently demand equality. Hence, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and other feminist children’s books can pave the way for new feminist curricula that not only include a more representative breadth of feminist literature but also consider the literary efforts made towards normalising and shaping the feminism of the future.
Favilli, Elena. Cavallo, Francesca. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. Particular Books, 2017, Great Britain.
McCabe, Janice. Fairchild, Emily. Grauerholz, Liz. Pescosolido, Bernice A. Tope, Daniel. Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters. Gender and Society, Vol. 25, No. 2. Sage Publications, Inc. April 2011. p197-226.
Pittman, Taylor. These Bedtime Stories Trade Princesses For Women Who Changed The World. Huffpost, US, 29/04/2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/these-bedtime-stories-trade-princesses-for-women-who-changed-the-world_us_572383aae4b01a5ebde56e6f
About the author:
Sophie Hanson is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Warwick. She is particularly interested in the presentation of women and power in literature and am enjoying expanding her interests at university.