Francesca Cavallo, coauthor of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series, which has sold more than four million copies and been translated into 50 languages, completed a successful Kickstarter campaign late last month, for her first solo picture book, Doctor Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus. It is also the first book to be published by her new children’s media company Undercats, Inc., which she established last fall following her split from Timbuktu Labs, which she cofounded a decade ago to publish Rebel Girls and other media.

While not as large as the record-breaking crowdfunding campaign for Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which raised more than $1 million, the campaign for Doctor Li brought in more than $52,000 from 1,322 backers. The 44-page hardcover, illustrated by Claudia Flandoli, will ship in October in English, Italian, and Simplified Chinese. In it, Cavallo tells the story of how Doctor Li, a Chinese ophthalmologist, tried to alert the world to the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, only to be accused by the police of spreading false information. He died of Covid-19 in February. The 10-page story on which the book is based went viral when Cavallo posted it for free on her website on April 14. Within two weeks it was downloaded 40,000 times and volunteers translated it into 32 languages.

Diversity and Gender

While Rebel Girls and Timbuktu encouraged girls and women to dream big, Cavallo, an LGBTQ activist and entrepreneur, wants Undercats to be a place to tell stories that embrace diversity and gender equality. “The time is right for radically different family entertainment,” she told PW in an interview from her native Italy. “I feel like there’s a need for children’s publishing to be more connected to the issues of our time. It’s good to have books on evergreen subjects like friendship. It’s also good to help children understand the world around them.”

Cavallo would like to use Undercats to disrupt the Disney notion of nostalgia and the longing for a past with castles and princesses. “If you think about the time we’re living in,” she said, “nostalgia is incredibly conservative. We want [kids] to look at a future we can build together. I want to portray reality and a diverse world made by people of color.”

In addition to her efforts to erase sexism and racism, particularly anti-Asianism in the case of Doctor Li, Cavallo would like to see publishing companies be more international in scope and not restricted by national borders. To that end, she has begun hiring an international staff who speak at least two languages fluently.

'An Origin Story to Spark Imagination'

Cavallo said that she wrote Doctor Li following a fight she had on WhatsApp with friends about conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus. Afterward she read that one in four Italians believe in a conspiracy theory, and she worried that children would begin to associate Asian-looking people with the pandemic. “I wanted to create an origin story that could spark children’s imagination,” she noted, adding that “it’s very unusual that children around the world had the same experience.”

Through Doctor Li, Cavallo said that she wants to help children explore their feelings about the pandemic and about their isolation, which has been particularly difficult for them to do with schools closed around the world. She sees the book as offering a way for kids to cope with the weirdness of not going to school, of being locked in their house for three or four months with their parents, and of the silence around them. She also views the book as a record of history and has heard from people who backed the project that they want the book to remember this time period.

“By changing the kind of stories we tell children, we are changing the world,” Cavallo wrote in a recent update to her Kickstarter campaign. “By giving children access to the events unfolding around them, we’re making our democracies more inclusive. By offering children support through this trying time, we’re investing in their resilience, and in our future.”

As she did with Rebel Girls, Cavallo plans to handle her own distribution and will not be selling direct to Amazon; booksellers can order Doctor Li from [Undercats].

Other Projects

Prior to launching Undercats, which relies on crowdfunding to finance its projects, Cavallo tried traditional publishing for the first time for her first solo kids’ book, Elfi al quinto piano (Elves on the Fifth Floor), a Christmas story in which a group of children teach their city how to be a community. The book, which features a biracial family with two moms and three kids, was a bestseller in Italy where it was published by Feltrinelli in Italian last November. It will be released this fall in Swedish, German, Spanish, and Catalan, and will be published in the U.S. in 2021.

The experience hasn’t changed Cavallo’s mind about nontraditional publishing. “As much as I enjoyed traditional author work,” she said, “I could still feel the frustration with pitching the book to other publishers around the world.” She also appreciates the speed with which a nontraditional house can bring books to market. In the case of Doctor Li, it will go from fundraiser to finished product in three months.