Saturday, February 22, 2020

Book review: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Before I delve right into this book review there are a few thoughts I would like to share with you. 

About a year ago, I was seated in front of the mirror applying some mascara when one of my daughters asked me why I needed "that black stuff". Without thinking, I answered that it would make my lashes look darker and thicker and that in turn would make me look nicer. She looked puzzled and remarked that I already looked nice just the way I was so maybe I didn't need it. It was an innocent remark but one that made me stop and think how even ordinary actions can influence the perception of a little girl. It impressed upon me the importance of putting substantial thought into answering these kind of questions. 

When I was younger, I was expected to be nice, polite and compliant so I was (most of the time at least!). But as I started growing older, I gradually realised that it isn't healthy to suppress your true feelings and put on a show of niceness all the time. Why is it that girls are expected to take on the burden of other people's feelings? Healthy self-worth involves cultivating a level of self-acceptance that validates a full range of desires and feelings. Sometimes you need to say NO even if it ends up disappointing someone. Sometimes you need to stand your ground even if it comes at a cost. Sometimes you need to make your opinion known even if it makes you unpopular. Sometimes you need to call people out for their actions even if it makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to put yourself first even if it appears to be selfish. 

You know, as a mom of two daughters, I think about the term "empowerment" a lot. It is about giving an individual the tools to do good for them, themselves. I try to think of ways to bolster my girls self-esteem, to make them stand up for themselves and to make them realise that they have a powerful voice. Did I mention, my daughters are only 5 years old? But as I understand, the earlier you get a start on this, the better. Teaching our daughters that they belong in a world that constantly sends them mixed signals can be challenging, so empowering them is key.

I want my daughters to know that their beauty is not about what's on the outside. Confidence, happiness, kindness, optimism, compassion, gratefulness - these traits radiate beauty from within in the most understated ways. I'm more conscious of the way I compliment my daughters now. I don't want their sense of self-worth that’s dependent upon their appearance. Rather than a customary - "you look so pretty", I remember to say things like (and mean them) - "that was so clever!", "you are so strong", "you made that? It's so creative" or "that was so sweet and thoughtful of you". 

While on the subject of beauty, it is my responsibility as a parent to instil positive body image in their impressionable minds. To convey this important concept, I found that I had to change my own perceptions and work on myself. I understood the need to walk the talk. Although vanity is not one of my traits nor do I ever judge a person based on outward appearance alone, I realised that I never wholeheartedly embraced my own body. In my crusade to lose weight or correct my "flaws", I subconsciously may have made derogatory remarks about my body or weight in front of my daughters. Added to that, my daughters have always weighed considerably lesser than their peers and I guiltily recall having made comments (until quite recently) that they need to "eat more" or "gain weight" to look better. Since I've been increasingly aware of this, I have vowed to NEVER do it again. 

Little girls can be quite chatty and I'm amazed at the questions and inputs I get from my five-year olds about a variety of engaging subjects ranging from science, healthy eating, fitness, global warming, friendship, body image, bullying and such. I want them to understand that their thoughts and opinions really do matter. 

Instilling social confidence and encouraging friendships in girls is important for their self-esteem but being blessed with incredibly social and cheerful children, that is one area where I've practically had to do nothing at all! 

The area which I personally struggle with the most is to let them be more independent and respect their choices (within reason) when they do not necessarily align with mine. This would mean suppressing my inherent protective instinct and my need to control every situation which (for me) is quite difficult. But I'm taking it one day at a time and learning little by little to let go and give them the freedom to do what they want, let them fail and help them get back up. I need to be able to tell them - "yes you can be my princesses but you don't need rescuing. Go slay your own dragons". 

There is so much, we, the parents of daughters can do in addition to the above - choosing toys and books wisely, praising efforts rather than performance and instilling financial skills early on. These are little things that if practiced from a young age will embolden ours daughters and give them the confidence to counter dysfunctional cultural norms.

Something else I want to do is to expose them to positive female role models. I want my daughters to gain some insight into the struggles of women from different ethnicities, cultures, social standing and backgrounds who overcame incredible odds to make a positive impact in the world. I bought Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls as I was thinking about this, just before my girls turned five. Since then, we have read and re-read it multiple times.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a series of two children's books, aimed at ages six and up. Both were funded through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and broke site records for fundraising for literature publication.

This gorgeous book is a compilation of mini biographies alongside striking full-page portraits in a variety of styles by female artists of 100 extraordinary women from 1500 BC to today. The audacity of their adventures, the width of their genius, the weight of their choices - they were constantly belittled, forgotten and in some cases, almost erased from history. 

The book features the stories of women from an array of fields, including science, medicine, literature, the arts, sports, politics, fashion, music, the military, and more from countries across the globe. From activists and lawyers to pirates and inventors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo present young readers with a lifetime’s supply of brilliant female role models.

Reading this book is a welcome alternative to the stereotypical portrayal of girls and women in fiction (such as some of the classic Disney Princesses), or books about heroes which primarily focus on male protagonists. It focuses on telling young girls that they can grow up to be whatever they wish, regardless of what other people think. While on the subject of Disney Princesses, I'm secretly happy that of the lot, my daughters gravitate more towards the stories of inspiring characters like Moana, Raya and Merida.

I was ashamed to admit that I was aware of only about 40% of the women in this book. Reading it certainly helped me improve my knowledge whilst providing inspiration, entertainment and an opportunity to bond with my girls at the same time.

Girls should read this book because they should know that the obstacles that are inevitably going to surface in life are not insurmountable. That not only can they find a way to overcome them, but that they can remove those obstacles for those who will come after them, just like these remarkable women did.

These trailblazers and revolutionaries will inspire and impress upon the young reader the solid belief that beauty, bravery and determination manifests itself in all shapes, sizes, colours and at all ages. 

Among the 100 stories, the below few are some of my daughters favourite. I gathered as much because, although they cannot recollect all the names, as soon as they see the illustrations, they rattle off the details so I know these stories have stayed with them. 

Alek Wek - the poor black girl who fled her war-torn hometown in Sudan to become a British supermodel

Balkissa Chaibou - a young girl from Niger who fought against child marriage and went on to become a doctor and activist

Frida Kahlo - the tragedy-stricken girl from Mexico who overcame the odds to become one of the most famous painters of the twentieth century

Helen Keller - the deaf and blind girl from USA who overcame her disabilities to master five languages, give public speeches and champion the rights of people with disabilities

Jane Goodall - the girl from England who dreamed of going to Africa and eventually became a primatologist and discovered several facts about chimpanzees that were previously not known to the world

Lakshmi Bai - the braveheart from Jhansi, India loved fighting and mastered self-defense, archery and sword fighting. She went on to become a queen and warrior and fought against the British on behalf of her state. 

Malala Yousafzai - the young knowledge-thirsty girl from a small valley in Pakistan who defied the feared Taliban and paid the price for it by getting shot. But that didn’t stop Malala. She became an activist and is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Manal Al-Sharif - the woman from Saudi Arabia who had to endure arrest all because she wanted to drive a car in a country where religious rules forbid women from driving. A woman’s rights activist who spoke out and encouraged women to fight for their rights.

Mary Kom - the girl from an Indian village who battled gender stereotypes and financial burden and who had to solely rely on grit and determination to become a boxer. Mary made her country proud by winning several medals including one at the Olympics. 

Rosa Parks - the black girl from Alabama who grew up during the time of racial segregation. When asked to give up her seat on a bus for a white person, Rosa mustered the courage to say NO. It resulted in her having to spend the night in jail but it also inspired a boycott that lasted until the US Supreme court intervened and declared bus segregation unconstitutional. 

Wangari Maathai - the woman from Kenya who took matters into her own hands when she noticed the disastrous effects of widespread deforestation by the local government. Along with her friends, she gathered seeds from the forest and planted them in cans. The idea soon grew into a widespread movement. Her efforts culminated in 40 million trees and the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Yusra Mardini - the young swimmer from Syria whose local swimming pool and house was annihilated by bombings during war forcing the family to flee the country. On the way to Germany, the boat carrying refugees broke down at sea. Yusra, along with two others, swam, kicked and dragged the boat for more than three hours until they reached shore. She was part of the first refugee team ever to compete in the Olympics. 

There were many other stories which I thought were relevant to today's times - the story of Coy Mathis, an American transgender girl, can be used to broach the subject of gender identity in a non-biased way and can teach a child about tolerance and acceptance. The story of Amna Al Haddad brings to light how religious norms can impact a field such as sports (she eventually inspired Nike to enter the hijab business!) and the story of Ashley Fiolek is testament that disability is no reason to prevent one from pursuing their passion. 

Of course, it is impossible for anyone to compile a book such as this without disappointing a single person so there are a few negative aspects that I should point out as well. Some of the stories were a tad too political or had concepts that were too advanced for my kids, so I had to simplify it for them (but I'm sure they will grasp it better when they are slightly older). It didn't escape my notice that most of the women featured in the book were/are from Europe and America. The number of women from Asia (the biggest and most populous continent) are comparatively fewer. You can choose to take issue with that and feel annoyed but I chose to let it go. I personally disliked the illustration of Mae C. Jemison and the Williams sisters, did not appreciate the fact that the bad attitude shown by Zaha Hadid for a mere flight delay was given a positive spin and I'm not sure I would want the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye as a positive role model for my girls. Also, I'm not completely on board with Aung San Suu Kyi, Margaret Thatcher and Coco Chanel being in there. I was disappointed that one of the women authors I admire immensely, JK Rowling, wasn't featured in the book (update: I just found out that JK Rowling is featured in the follow-up book so can't wait to get my hands on that!). 

Overall, this is a creative, inspiring and uplifting book. This book is not just relevant for girls. I think boys should read them as well. After all, why shouldn't boys read about fabulous, inspirational women?! This is an ideal book for gifting so get it for a child (boy/girl) of any age you think will benefit from it.

I think the biggest affirmation of my daughters love for this book is that they have both declared that they want to feature in it 😊

My rating for this book is,

The world currently belongs to the millennial's and the hope is that it shapes into one where gender will not define how big you can dream or how far you can go. A world where everyone is "free" in the truest sense of the word. 

I look forward to the next generation of strong, driven and compassionate young women and I believe that my daughters will be among them. 

Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.


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