Back to basics. With rodents.

9780441007738_p0_v1_s260x420Maybe it’s just vanity, but I think that, for the most part at least, we’ve been pretty creative this month with our selections. From picture book characters to real-life serial killers to fairy tale villains becoming fairy tale heroines (and vice versa), I feel like each of our subjects plays with the concept of villainy, examines it from a different angle, shakes its foundations a bit.

Pretty great, right? Yeah, I think so, too. But all that ends now, because for October’s final post, I’m here to tell you about a villain who upholds all the stereotypes, a bad guy who slots neatly and comfortably into his role. We all need some nice, refreshing evil every once in a while.

Most Redwall villains are thug types. Stupid brutes with a lot of brawn and a lot less brains. As a child, they bored and frustrated me. But Vilu Daskar, pirate stoat of The Legend of Luke, isn’t like that. He’s elegant and refined and intelligent. He strides the deck of his great red ship in a long crimson cloak, terrifying friend and foe alike with his unpredictability, his malevolence, and his bone-handled scimitar. He positively brims with class.

I’m not giving away much if I tell you that things don’t work out well for ol’ Vilu. He’s a classic villain and so must meet a classic end. But his presence in the story puts a much-needed kink in the chummy, jolly Redwall atmosphere, proving once and for all that there’s nothing like a good bad guy to spice things up.


In which I barely scratch the surface.

9780064407724I love a good fairy tale retelling. I love the way these stories’ familiar elements—an apple for a Snow White story, long hair for Rapunzel—give us just enough information to recognize them, and to expect certain things from the retelling. And I love it when someone takes those expectations and turns in a story that’s totally unexpected. In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue does this brilliantly: each of her fairy tales is linked, one to the next, by a villain who was once a heroine.

For some reason this conceit is really hard to describe, but here goes: At the end of each story, the heroine asks her villain who she was before she became a witch, and the villain replies, “Will I tell you my own story?” And then she begins to tell another familiar fairy tale, about a time when she was the innocent one. My favorite of these backstories is the discovery, at the end of “The Tale of the Rose,” that Beauty’s Beast (a lady beast) was once Snow White. This is so fabulous that it is now my Beauty and the Beast/Snow White headcanon.

I was just going to focus on villains here. I wasn’t going to talk much about the ladies loving ladies/general feminist elements of Kissing the Witch because I just didn’t have room (instead I was just going to make a dirty joke about Snow White and the apple. Seriously, READ IT). But actually, it’s hard to separate out the different pieces that make this book so extremely special. Yes, the structure complicates the idea of the bad guy. Every witch was once innocent; every innocent could become a witch. But—what does it mean to be a witch? What does it mean that these villains and victims are all ladies, even in the original tellings of the tales? And how does their evil get more complicated when suddenly these evil stepmothers and spinster witches are also their innocent young ladies’ lovers? Every villain in this book has a backstory, but these fairy tales also reveal how our understanding of villainy has its very own backstory.

I could never do this book justice in a blog-posty number of words. Just go read it.

If this is too depressing, scroll down for Dana’s post about picture books!

9781419702167No question: I never would have picked up this book, let alone read it, without the absolutely spot-on recommendation delivered to me a couple of years ago by an old friend whose taste I trust. It’s hard not to be skeptical of anything with the title My Friend Dahmer.

But, and here’s my recommendation, this book isn’t any of the things you’re afraid it’s going to be. It isn’t gruesome, or morbid, or trivializing, or exploitative. It neither glamorizes nor demonizes its infamous central figure.

What it is, more than anything else, is terribly, terribly sad.

I’m inclined to argue that the title is a little bit misleading. Yes, Derf Backderf knew Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, but the sense I get is that Dahmer never had any real friends. I suppose My Acquaintance Dahmer or That Guy Dahmer don’t have quite the same ring, but the degree to which no one knew him (or bothered to know him) is definitely part of the point here.

In his preface, Backderf writes, “There are a surprisingly large number out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of antihero, a bullied kid who lashed back at the society that rejected him. This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.”

That directive is at the crux of what My Friend Dahmer makes space for—the wonderful world of fiction aside, the scariest villains are the ones that are real, and for those more than any of the others, it’s important that we don’t let ourselves forget their humanity.

Murder in the name of haberdashery

Okay, get ready. This post is going to involve a lot of scrolling. But also, pretty pictures of evil things that are also kind of cute!

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Jon Klassen has written and illustrated some serious bad guys in the last few years.

And these are like for-real not-kidding-around villains. I’m talking murderous animals.This-is-Not-My-Hat_4


I’m talking evil archdukes who steal happiness and yarn from little girls.


And I’m talking darkness itself.


All four of these books are brilliant (so is pretty much everything this guy has ever made. Seriously, check it out), but for me the real magic is all in the eyes in I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. What makes good people do bad things? Just watch the bear’s eyes widen and the fish’s eyes narrow and you’ll have the answer.

I Want My Hat Back features a bear bereft at the loss of his hat. No one has seen it anywhere: the turtle hasn’t seen it. The snake hasn’t seen it. And the rabbit DEFINITELY hasn’t seen it. Alone and cold-headed, the bear resigns himself to life without his hat when suddenly he realizes—klassenAnd then, bloodshed.

But off screen, don’t worry, this is a book for five year olds. Five year olds who frequently conjecture, when they see another bear and rabbit standing together in Extra Yarn, that all is well, and bears do not eat rabbits. Sorry kids. Bears eat rabbits.

Also, big fish eat little fish. This Is Not My Hat is narrated by the little fish in question—a little fish who is wearing a little hat that is not his own. The little fish freely admits to his thieving ways—”This hat is not mine. I stole it,” he says on the first page of text—but, he thinks, if he swims fast and far into the weeds, the big fish he stole it from will never know.

How wrong he is.


Listen to that unapologetic thief and then look into that big fish’s eyes and tell me he’s not justified in committing murder.


Iago: worst friend ever.

OthelloiagomovieFor me, Othello is Shakespeare’s most horrifying play. (A category with an awful lot of competition, I might add.) There are many reasons for this, most of which I won’t go into because they would just bring out the English major in me more than is probably necessary, but the main reason, the important reason, is Iago.

I thought about it for quite a while before finally deciding to write this one. Posting about Shakespeare seems almost as bad as posting about Harry Potter, but, God, I couldn’t spend the month thinking and writing about favorite villains without thinking and writing (at least a little bit) about Iago. He’s too good—too bad—to resist.

In my book, Iago is king of the villains. He’s vicious and remorseless and terrifyingly brilliant. He’s the ultimate master manipulator, systematically destroying Othello (not to mention a few odd others as well) while effortlessly maintaining his own image as loyal, dedicated, and, above all, honest. And (spoiler alert!) he manages it all without even dying at the end.

October 2014: Bad Guys

giphySometimes I just don’t care about the hero. Sometimes, the bad guy is just way too good. So this month, we’re talking about some of our favorite villains.

And we’re using that term broadly—like, Voldemort counts but so does (the pathetic) Draco Malfoy, not that you’ll actually see either of them on this list. (Because sadly, Harry Potter is still verboten, even though I desperately want to write about Snape, the single best good bad guy/bad good guy/what-in-the-world-is-he-I-still-don’t-know-and-the-last-book-came-out-seven-years-ago guy in all of literature.)

These are characters that complicate the concept of evil, or make our good-guy heroes grow, or just have really good creeper voices in our heads. They prove that characters don’t always have to be likable to be fully, wonderfully human.

Plus, it’s October, scary times, bad people, BOO!

PS This month we’re linking to Left Bank Books in St. Louis!