Rewriting history: the new books celebrating female dreamers and rebels

By Rachael Steven

In 2016, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo launched a crowdfunding campaign for an illustrated children’s book celebrating inspiring women from history. Cavallo, a playwright and Favilli, a journalist, had become frustrated with the lack of books and TV shows showing women in prominent positions. In an attempt to address this gender imbalance, they created Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: a collection of 100 bedtime stories about 100 brilliant women illustrated by 100 female artists.

The book was a hit. It raised over $1 million on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and became the most successful book in crowdfunding history. It has since been translated into multiple language and made the New York Times and the Times’ bestseller lists. Last month, a second volume was released with 100 more inspiring tales of female role models.

The success of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls revealed a clear demand for empowering stories about women. But Favilli and Cavallo aren’t the only authors uncovering stories of female rebels and revolutionaries.

Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzi Lee is published by Abrams and costs £14.99. © 2018 Mackenzie Lee. The book is illustrated by Petra Eriksson

Bygone Badass Broads

Last month, Abrams & Chronicle Books published Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World – an illustrated collection of stories about inspiring women written by history graduate and young adult fiction author Mackenzi Lee.

The book is based on a Twitter series of the same name. Lee started the series around two years ago: each week, she would post a series of tweets telling the story of a different woman from history.

It felt like history – and the culture surrounding history as a whole – was feeding us this idea that women weren’t part of it

The project was prompted by her experience of studying history at college and discovering that most courses were focused on stories about men. “If I wanted to learn about women, I had to take an elective course and meet in some dusty basement room with no air conditioning. It felt like history – and the culture surrounding history as a whole – was feeding us this idea that women weren’t part of it, and I knew that was false because I was finding all of these stories [about women], so I just wanted to share these stories with people,” she explains.

As the series continued, Lee’s Twitter following grew. People began emailing her to tell her how much they enjoyed the series and some even said they had scheduled their lunch breaks in order to watch stories unfold live. One of her stories, about Irena Sendler – a nurse in Warsaw who smuggled children out of Jewish ghettos during World War Two – was featured in Twitter’s daily highlights and Lee began to receive requests from blogs and magazines asking her to write for them. A publisher suggested she turn the project into a book and she pitched the idea to Abrams & Chronicle in January 2017.

Spread from Bygone Badass Broads, illustrated by Petra Eriksson

“This proposal came to me at a time when everyone was still reeling from the election,” says Samantha Weiner, Senior Editor at Abrams & Chronicle. “There had been so much talk about female empowerment and the resurgence of feminism, and we had been seeing those trends in publishing too. When the project came to us, it felt both timely and refreshing. Here we were being given the opportunity to tell the stories of all these women who broke the gender moulds of their times, and it felt special. Mackenzi’s voice and passion exploded off the page and we knew that there was something powerful here.”

The book is similar in format to Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls but has a little more attitude and is aimed at adults and older girls. In her biographies, Lee pokes fun at Western fairytales where women are married off and only men can be ruling monarchs. She even takes aim at men trying to control women’s reproductive rights in an story about Athens’ first female gynaecologist, drawing parallels between Ancient Greece and modern day America. In her informal tone of voice, she writes as if she is talking to a friend.

Spread from Bygone Badass Broads, illustrated by Petra Eriksson

“I wanted the book to be casual and accessible to people who feel shut out of non-fiction, whether it’s because of their reading level or confidence or because they don’t feel like they have enough foundational knowledge,” she explains.

Bygone Badass Broads is illustrated by Petra Eriksson, who created a vibrant portrait of each woman to accompany their biography. Abrams & Chronicle designer Diane Shaw suggested a list of potential artists – all of whom reflected racial and body diversity in their work – and Lee says she was immediately drawn to Eriksson’s bold and graphic style.

Spread from Bygone Badass Broads, illustrated by Petra Eriksson

The list of women featured is diverse and ranges from Mongolian wrestling champion Khutuluna to feminist filmmaker Dorothy Arzner and Olympic Gold-winning athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen.

“The book is about 60 percent content I had written for Twitter and 40 percent new content,” explains Lee. “I have a document on my computer with hundreds and hundreds of women I’d like to feature, so my editor and I made a spreadsheet where we mapped out everyone’s sexuality and race and where they were from and what their religion was and their field of interest and all of these different areas to try and make certain the collection was as diverse as possible,” she explains. The result is an inspiring collection of little-known tales from different corners of the world – there’s even a bisexual French swordsman and opera singer.

Coco Chanel, illustrated by Ana Albero and written by Isabel Sanchez Vagera, from Frances Lincoln’s Little People, Big Dreams series

Little People, Big Dreams

In February 2016, Frances Lincoln, an imprint of publishing group Quarto, launched Little People, Big Dreams – a collection of illustrated storybooks celebrating positive female role models written by Spanish author Isabel Sanchez Vagera. The publisher has released eleven titles so far, selling 400,000 copies, and another nine are due for release later this year.

“The idea came about when my twin nieces, Alba and Claudia, were born,” says Sanchez Vagera. “I had discovered many great children’s books for Ernest, my oldest nephew. They were full of brave and enthusiastic boys ready to conquer the world. But things were slightly different when I looked for female references, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to create something that showed real female characters with the strength, courage and determination to believe in their dreams and make them come true.”

Above and lead image (cropped): spreads from Coco Chanel, illustrated by Ana Albero

Each Little People, Big Dreams book focuses on a different woman. The biggest sellers to date are Frida Kahlo, Coco Chanel and Marie Curie, but the series also includes books on Agatha Christie, Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mother Teresa. “These books are a tribute to dreamers — those who thought things could be done in a different way, who made a difference and believed in themselves. I don’t look for women who have simply reached the pinnacle of their careers as designers, painters, aviators, writers, researchers or singers. I look for authentic and unique characters with great personality, too,” says Sanchez Vagera.

The series is aimed at ages four and up: “I wanted to address young readers, from four years old, but create something that reached parents, too,” she adds. “I believe that the sooner a child starts believing in themselves and breaking with stereotypes that stigmatise people by their gender, the better. Children are sponges absorbing the world around them and we, as adults, are responsible for the world we show them.”

Frida Kahlo, from the Little People, Big Dreams series

Each book begins with a look at the featured woman’s childhood and each one is illustrated by a different artist. “I wanted the books to have the tone of a story book, rather than a lesson full of facts to memorise. That’s why the stories always begin with the character being a little girl with a special talent that makes her unique. She cultivates this talent throughout her life, no matter the obstacles she has to overcome,” explains Sanchez Vagera.

Like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Bygone Badass Broads, the Little People, Big Dreams series uses colourful illustrations to make history engaging and accessible. The books don’t shy away from challenging topics – addressing sexism and racism and discrimination – and show young readers that there are many, many alternatives to being a princess or a maiden in need of being rescued.

A spread from Frida Kahlo, illustrated by Gee Fan Eng

Bygone Badass Broads and Little People, Big Dreams are evidence of a growing appetite for educational books that present complex topics in an exciting and fun format. Rachel Williams commissioned the Little People, Big Dreams series after spotting Ana Albero’s illustrations for the Coco Chanel book on Instagram (the title was first published in Spain in 2014, before Williams invited Sanchez Vagera to develop the series in the UK).

Williams also heads up Wide Eyed Editions – a Quarto imprint that specialises in producing beautiful hardback books for children – with Editorial Director Jenny Broom. She says the design and illustrations in the Little People, Big Dreams books have made them popular with shoppers looking for meaningful gifts – leading to them being stocked in a wide range of stores from Waterstones to Anthropologie.

“We want to produce books that will stay on a child’s shelf for many years to come, so we spend a lot of time looking at paper stocks and finishes”

“As Jenny and I became parents, we saw how important those design features are to making books something that you want to keep and read again,” she says.

“It’s a legacy from lots of other markets – the French and the Scandinavians have been doing this for many years – and one of the great things about publishing in the UK and the US at the moment is that there has been this return to publishing high quality art books that readers of all ages can find interesting…. We want to produce books that will stay on a child’s shelf for many years to come, so we spend a lot of time looking at paper stocks and finishes and trying to create something that offers a tactile experience that cannot be replaced by a screen.”

Rosa Parks, from the Little People, Big Dreams series

Lee and Sanchez Vagera’s books are not just aimed at girls. But with women still underrepresented in films, books and TV, they deliver an empowering message to female readers.

So what has prompted this rise in books about brilliant women? Like Cavallo and Favilli, Lee and Sanchez Vagera were frustrated by a lack of stories celebrating female role models. But this has long been the case – and yet these books have only begun appearing in the past couple of years.

Forgotten Women: The Leaders by Zing Tsjeng is published by Cassell and costs £15

“I think it goes hand in hand with the activism we’re seeing in the US,” says Weiner. “You’re seeing it with more women running for office, continued protests, and the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. There is a sense that everyone – and women in particular – have had it with the status quo. I think the Women’s March changed the conversation for a lot of people. It made people feel like times are actually changing and if we can all make the choice to be intersectional allies, we can help raise each other up and start to finally get closer to an equal playing field.”

“Trump is in the White House; women’s rights are being rolled back around the world … it’s prompting us to look for sources of strength and resistance in the culture we read and consume”

Zing Tsjeng, UK editor at Broadly, recently worked with publisher Octopus to create three books celebrating ‘forgotten women’ from history. The first Forgotten Women book was released last month and focused on influential and rebellious leaders. The second, about female scientists, was released today and a third, about artists, will be published later this year.

Tsjeng believes that the success of Goodnight Stories revealed “a real hunger for books about women’s history” – an appetite that was not being met by publishers. And like Weiner, she believes this has a lot to do with the political climate.

“Trump is in the White House; women’s rights are being rolled back around the world; the far right is rising in power – all these things are threatening and scary to women and minoritised groups. It’s prompting us to look for sources of strength and resistance in the culture we read and consume,” she adds.

“Women are seeing – sometimes for the first time – that there is an appetite for this. People really want to hear their stories”

Lee believes that social media has also played an important role by giving marginalised communities a platform to tell and share stories: “Amazing women have always existed in history but for a long time we’ve been fed this lie that the only people who made history were white men … now, we finally have a platform to say this is wrong and these stories are here,” she says. Weiner believes this – along with the Women’s March movement – has created a culture in which people are less fearful of making their voice heard: “Women are seeing – sometimes for the first time – that there is an audience for this. People really want to hear these stories,” she adds.

This movement doesn’t only exist in publishing – even Disney has acknowledged the fact that girls don’t just want to see stories about princesses with films such as Brave, Tangled and Moana. “There was a time when being a girl was already supposed to be a role. Not just in literature, but even in everyday thinking: a boy could be an astronaut, a sheriff, an athlete, a soldier… but a girl was supposed to be the girl…. Girls now know that they can be anything they want,” says Sanchez Vagera.

Forgotten Women: The Scientists by Zing Tsjeng is published by Cassell, £15

With many stories still untold, it seems there is room for plenty more books celebrating inspiring women from the past and present. “There is an ocean of women’s lives that still needs to be celebrated and brought to people’s attention. And not just books, too – these women deserve public statues, Netflix adaptations, blockbuster movies etc!” says Tsjeng.

“Someone Tweeted me a picture the other day with a stack of books including mine, and said they had just found a new addition to their new favourite genre – and it made me so happy,” adds Lee.

“There are so many of [these books] now and that is so cool…. Hopefully, these stories will become part of the collective consciousness surrounding history, and the young people who are raised on them will fight back against the idea that history was made by men. I hope they’ll be raised believing women have a place in that narrative from the get go, rather than only discovering that in later life.”

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