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Return of the Rebel Girls

Does the follow-up to the hugely popular first book address the turmoil feminism is going through now?

Malala Yousafzai from the first ‘Rebel Girls’ book.
Malala Yousafzai from the first ‘Rebel Girls’ book.

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If the last couple of years saw the world in turmoil, it provided a watershed moment for feminism too. With right-wing governments (in the US, for example) rolling back some freedoms for women, the gains of the past decades appeared in danger of being lost. But then, inevitably, women came out fighting. Yet the fight took a new turn and seemed focused, at least in the media, on a few issues—sexual assault, harassment, and getting to grips with consent. Crucial concerns over which the #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements, and the new wave of feminists, took to the streets (aka social media). Gender injustices beyond these, however, continued to constrain women as the wheels of other, quieter revolutions carried on turning alongside.

For the youngest women, those under 12, the challenge is often to be seen and heard—seen for who they really are, capable of as much and worthy of the same opportunities as the boys around them, and be heard on the issues that shape and affect their age group. In the quiet corners where little girls read, there has been a growing demand for genuine and uplifting representations of women. When only 37% of the 6,000 English-language children’s books tested in 2011 had speaking parts for women, finding positive female portrayals in their pages become as improbable as unicorns in broad daylight. Except the latter are far more likely to appear in literature for young girls, a genre so overrun by hapless princesses and frothy fairies that the rarest thing in it is the strong, intelligent woman.

It was this lacuna that made Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo write their stories. They wanted to provide an array of accomplished women girls could look up to. So they set about recounting the many adventures and achievements of everyday women, to “show kids that these women were real, even though they probably won’t encounter them in the school curriculum”. And so the first Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls (2016) was born: vivid, engrossing, ground-breaking, in that each of its characters was a woman.

It included women who made magic with “potions” like Marie Curie, and girls who overcame bullets à la Malala Yousafzai, but not a single witch, evil stepmother or prancing pixie. By moving away from the industry’s comfort zone, however, they put off publishers. The authors then took their book to the very people, the little girls and their parents, who had clamoured for it, and their crowd-funding campaign, by raising almost $700,000 (around Rs4.54 crore), became the most successful for any book. That it was then translated into 36 languages, and sold millions worldwide, demonstrated what the authors (and most women) had always maintained: that “two girls alone” could succeed without the help of “a prince, a brother or a mouse”.

With the second Rebel Girls book out in February, readers are asking the usual questions: Is it better than the first? Does it tick the boxes of diversity, sensitivity and delightful readability too? And does it extend the scope of such stories (in other words: Are we done with princesses yet)?

Of course, princesses who turn things on their heads do have a place in children’s tales. In Julia Donaldson’s rousing Zog, the disenchanted princess exclaims, “Don’t rescue me! I won’t go back to being a princess/And prancing round the palace in a silly, frilly dress/I want to be a doctor, and travel here and there/Listening to people’s chests and giving them my care”. Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants similarly takes to the road to find her future, leaving all decorum and matrimonial alliances behind. And though further along the reading curve, there are more literary women young adults can relate to and admire: from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women who vow to “do something splendid...something astonish you all someday!” to perhaps the most influential of all storybook heroines of recent times, J.K. Rowling’s Hermione “I’m hoping to do some good in the world” Granger. There just aren’t enough kinds of remarkable literary women to go around.

Girls of other colours, abilities, beliefs and sexuality have never been adequately represented in most English-language books. If Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy or Judy Blume’s Blubber deal with differently abled or shaped girls, Marjorie Blackman’s Noughts And Crosses, Neil Gaiman’s Cinnamon, Anita Desai’s The Village By The Sea and Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike offer some solace to little girls who aren’t white, by allowing them a tiny foothold in their own storybooks. But this drop in the ocean also reminds us of the vast world of young women they do not address at all.

That must have been the criticism put to the Rebel Girls authors, with just 34% of their stories focusing on women of colour in the first book, because they vowed to make the second one about the “women that our community helped us discover, so it is more inclusive and diverse than the first”. Their vibrant new line-up of black computer scientists, Asian-American firefighters, Chinese rock climbers, activist pop-stars like Beyoncé, and more, do go some distance in plugging that large gap in the literary universe. But does it do enough? Can a lone South Asian woman really represent the millions on this planet? Could the stories have had more depth? Despite the light and shade and odd delightful detail, they are too brief to do justice to the women portrayed. Bright girls from 6 or 7 are, after all, perfectly able to grasp intricate stories. But when the intention is to present as many amazing women as possible, not only does each story have to be snappy and breezy, it also has to be reliant on the striking illustrations by 70 women artists that (almost) make up for the brevity of the tales.

“You are the promise, you are the force,” the second book exhorts at the start, “don’t step back and everyone will move forward.” In giving girls a sense of the many things they can aspire to, Rebel Girls does offer the inspiration its authors set out to provide, becoming part of the wider effort to enable our youngest women to fight for their rights, equal opportunities, and complete ownership of their bodies, which is what all feminism, new or old, is about. And if they don’t deal with the complex but important issues—abuse and consent—in the eye of the storm these last months, it’s time that a spin-off series for older girls did that.

Would young adult authors step up, please?

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