Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls' illustrators on creating portraits of female role models

One of this Christmas' best-selling Christmas books tells stories of real inspiring women from Ada Lovelace to Nina Simone. Here four artists tell us about creating illustrations for the book.

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo's Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a classic modern success story. The book began as a Kickstarter in the US, grew via word of mouth and social media, became a massive independent publishing success over there, was picked up by Penguin imprint Particular Books for the UK – and was 2017's first surprise success for the children's book industry in the UK. It was one of the shortlisted titles for Waterstones Book of the Year 2017 and is featured heavily in bestseller lists this Christmas.

Along the way Rebel Girls has become wildly popular with parents, teachers and children (including my own daughter Alice, who after I tell her about this feature might finally get a handle on what Daddy does for a living).

Much of its success was due to its concept. The book features the real-life stories of 100 inspiring women from Elizabeth I to Malala – leaders, politicians, musicians, scientists, dancers, lawyers and more.

Each story is told in the manner, tone and lilt of a fairytale – and using a vocabulary that's accessible to children from ages four to 12 as children move from being read to doing it themselves. Occassional words and concepts need explanation from the an adult, but this encourages discussion and deepens understanding.

And each story is accompanied by a full-page illustration created by a female illustrator. While some will be familiar to you as a Digital Arts reader – we've featured the work and thoughts of Ana Galvin, Camilla Perkins, Lizzy Stewart and Malin Rosenqvist especially many times before – others will likely be new to you (and were to me).

Here four of the artists tell us how they feel about being involved in the project, the creative process behind their works and who their own female role models were when they were growing up.

NB: Tell us a bit about yourself.

JL: "I am a freelance illustrator from France. I have been drawing for as long as i can remember, and working as an illustrator since I moved to London a few years ago.

"Most of my personal works are portraits inspired by cinema, music and literature. I like to draw people who inspire me, artists I look up to. I also like to record the cities I travel to and make detailed cityscapes of each new place I discover."

NB: How did you come to create illustrations of Hillary Clinton and Astrid Lindgren for Rebel Stories…?

JL: "I was contacted by Elena as she had come across my portrait of Hillary Clinton on Behance. It was quite a rough sketch and needed some refining, but she liked the fiery pose and the use of a unique colour for the whole illustration, a very striking blue.

"After Hillary was completed I was asked to work on a portrait of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, of which I only knew her famous character Pippi Longstocking."

NB: What was the appeal of drawing each of them?

JL: "Hillary’s drawing came just as the American elections were in full swing, so it was quite thrilling to be drawing her in the prospect that she might become the first female president in American history. The enthusiasm around her persona was quite unique at the time.

"Drawing Astrid Lindgren’s portrait was also truly interesting as I didn’t know too much about her life, and visiting Sweden a few weeks later I realised that she is considered a true national hero. She was a much-loved children’s book author of course, but also an influential voice on everyday issues who helped unseat a Swedish government, influenced changes in the law and even inspired anarchists.

"And of course her personal struggles as a single working mum in the 1930s and her bigger-than-life personality are more than inspiring too."

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NB: Tell us a bit about the composition of the artworks.

JL: "I working with Illustrator on the iPad Pro, which lets me create near-infinitely small details to make the drawing come to life. My style is quite realistic, and I love to give as much detail as possible to the portrait I’m doing.

"It was also interesting to draw older women, something I had rarely done in the past, and my initial portrait of Hillary was showing her much younger than she currently is. I had to rework the drawing to make her look older, more realistic, and that was quite challenging.

"The other portrait depicts Astrid Lindgren in her late years, and I really wanted to capture that feeling of a woman both strong and powerful, almost like a grandmother figure, reassuring, from who you learn, and has an inspirational aura. I thought that the colour orange would give the portrait this feeling of energy and empowerment."

NB: Who was your female role model as a child?

JL: "Frida Kahlo has always inspired me very much and I’ve been fascinated by her from a very young age. As a strong individual who was disengaged from any official artistic movement, she managed to stay unique and free-spirited her whole life.

"She battled terrible physical and psychological pain, she endured more in her short life than most people will ever have to face. Yet there is always so much hope and life in her paintings, and her imagery and style were very original, dramatic, and courageous.

"Diego Rivera said: 'Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings. The only woman who has expressed in her work an art of the feelings, functions, and creative power of woman.'"

Note: This interview was conducted in April 2017. Since then, the authors are considering removing Aung San Suu Chi from future reprints for not intervening in violence against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims.

NB: Tell us a bit about yourself.

LS: "I'm an illustrator and author from Devon who, currently, lives in south-east London."

NB: How did you come to create an illustration of Aung San Suu Kyi for Rebel Stories...?

LS: "I got an email asking if I could contribute an illustration. I watched the Kickstarter video to see what it was all about and was immediately on board with the idea. Each illustrator got assigned their 'inspirational figure', which was helpful as I'm not sure I could have decided. I'm very very glad I didn't have to do Thatcher though!"

NB:  What was the appeal of drawing Sun Kyi?

LS: "I think, knowing the intent of the book, it was nice to do an image that was celebratory and positive. In recent months Aung San Sun Kyi has come under fire a little but at that it was interesting to do a bit of research and find out more about the work she's done for Burma and the Burmese people.

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NB: Tell us a bit about the composition of the artwork.

LS: "Aung San Sun Kyi and Burma are, almost, one and the same. I feel like her legacy there will last a long time so it felt really important to get some elements of the Burmese landscape in there.

NB: Who were your female role models as a child?

"As a nine-year-old in 1996, the Spice Girls had an inevitable effect. Although I'm not sure I thought of them as role models.

"Most of the women I admired were part of my real life. My Mum for being so smart and even-handed and reasonable and kind, my Grandma for being funny I think, My art teacher who really encourages me in such a valuable way. Oh, and Barbara Hepworth. I was a big Hepworth fan from the minute I first visited her house in St Ives (aged 11). She was so cool, carving those massive chunks of marble with her long, large hands. I loved her."

NB: Tell us a bit about yourself.

MR: "I have been working as a freelance illustrator since 2011. I studied illustration and animation at the Royal College of Art Craft & Design in Stockholm, Sweden and at the Hochschule für Kunst & Design in Luzern, Switzerland.

"I have two kids, both boys, 4 and 1 years old. I live and work outside Stockholm in Bergshamra. I have my studio 50 metres from my apartment. It’s in a space that used to be a shop in the 50’s, so it has these great big shop windows."

NB: What was the appeal of drawing Kate Sheppard and Lozen?

MR: "I really enjoyed that it was two women from very different parts of the world. it made researching about them and the areas/times in which they lived very interesting."

NB: Tell us a bit about the composition of the artworks.

MR: "I decided to have backgrounds for the portraits reflecting the origin of the women. Lozen – who is an Apache – got a typical pattern as backdrop. For Kate, I used flowers from New Zealand, just as frail and romantic as the women of Kate's time. I also tried to use colours and clothing to reflect their culture and time."

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NB: Why do you think the book's been so popular with both children and their parents? 

MR: "Because there is a need for it! A while ago there was a test for movies, the Bechdel Test. You could easily go to the children’s section in a bookshop and implement that test on children's books.

"As a mother of boys, I feel the book is equally urgent for them. I want to give my boys a wider view of women then the stereotypical ones."

NB: Who were your female role models as a child? How did they inspire you?

MR: "I don’t remember women being visualised like this when I was growing up – so my biggest role model became a women in my vicinity: my grandma.

"We are very close and I spent a lot of time with her growing up. She took me seriously and had an amazing way of talking to me as a little girl.

"She inspired me with her activism and willfulness. She inspired me to thoughts and reflections that I still carry with me and that has affected my choice of profession."

NB: Tell us a bit about yourself.

MP: "I am from Slovakia, where I studied politics. Attracted to all things pictorial I moved to London to study graphic design – and later on to illustration at Camberwell College of Arts.

"Currently I work as a freelance illustrator, and have recently moved to Berlin. I work mostly digitally, with the occasional screen print – and the next step may be into 3D. I do many editorials with an occasional advertising campaign thrown in, with my clients including Pull&Bear, Converse, Google, The Guardian and the New York Times."

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NB: What was the appeal of drawing Mary Anning and Maya Gabeira?

MP: "When Elena contacted me, she already had Mary Anning and Maya Gabeira for me on mind, which was a relief – having to choose from such selection accomplished females would be definitely hard.

"What I like about Mary Anning is just the whole setting back then – she was this determined woman in long skirts walking miles of beaches and researching the lives of prehistoric animals. And Maya Gabeira is just plain cool. Such energy and drive!"

NB: Tell us a bit about the composition of the artworks.

MP: "As my style doesn’t really allow me to draw a portrait or play with facial features, I had to come up with a composition that somewhat captures the main activity of both women. As a result Mary Anning is stood on the cliff scraping a bit of rock away, with her loyal dog by her side.

"With Maya, I drew her in action, with the wave and bunch of sea creatures."

NB: Who were your female role models as a child? How did they inspire you?

MP: "Haha, I'm not sure I have the right answer for this one. Growing up in Communist and – later on – post-communist Slovakia, the only women one would hear about were 'woman the mother', 'women the worker', 'women the party sister'. No concrete names really.

"So actually Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls may come in handy."

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