Today with Claire Byrne: Children's baddies we love to hate

February 2022
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Who is your favourite villain in a children’s story? Voldemort, Mrs. Trunchbull, Big Bad Wolf, Cruella De Ville.....all fabulous villains who can strike fear into our little readers hearts. And of course we want courageous heroes who overcome adversity to inspire children reading books. But what is it about the those sneaky, revolting and creepy characters that has us coming back for more? 

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Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam by Tracy Corderoy, illustrated by Steven Lenton

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam (age 2+)

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam started out as a picturebook series. Shifty and Sam are a pair of robber dogs who start out as bad guys, but are just not very good at stealing. In a last ditch effort to live their life of crime, they decide they’ll throw a party for their neighbours and rob their houses while they’re distracted. The genius is in the books that follow, when our robber dogs with good hearts become bakers by day and detectives by night in a series of madcap Scooby Doo style adventures. The fun continues for older readers, age 5+, in a series of 4 (so far!) illustrated chapterbooks, a new villain in each.


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Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen

Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen (age 3+)

One of the best places to find great villains is in fairytales, and they’re still hugely popular whether in their original forms or as retellings – across all age groups. In this book by Nadia Shireen, good little wolf Rolf meets the Big Bad Wolf, who tries to make Rolf blow houses in and eat people up. But when he’s accused of not being a real wolf, Rolf gets mad and ties up the big bad wolf, just to show that he can be fierce too! This is one picturebook where the bad guy stays bad through and through and promises to be good tomorrow. For more great villains by Nadia Shireen check out Billy and the Beast and Billy and the Dragon.


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The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey

The Bad Guys (series) by Aaron Blabey (age 5+)

Following on from Good Little Wolf, The Bad Guys sees Mr Wolf finally getting fed up of being the villain and wanting to be the hero of a story. He’s set on convincing his pals Mr Snake, Mr Shark and Mr Piranha to team up and become the good guys, but in their first story, he’s mostly trying to stop them from eating people, animals and each other! Naturally throughout the series they encounter a whole cast of real villains including billionaire mad scientist Dr Rupert Marmalade. There are at least 12 of these books available in Ireland at the minute and with a major movie coming soon from Dreamworks, the Bad Guys are going to be very big this year.


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The Witches – the Graphic Novel by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Pénélope Bagieu (age 7+)

The Witches – the Graphic Novel by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Pénélope Bagieu (age 7+)

All hail Roald Dahl – king of the villains. There’s no doubt that The Trunchbull, the Twits, and Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are among the best children’s book villains of all time. The Witches was first published almost 40 years ago and has been made into a movie not once but twice. The Grand High Witch is the leader of the witches worldwide and is on a mission to rid the earth of children – disgusting, revolting creatures. In this version, she’s an especially terrifying creature, with a monstrous purple face and pointy ears, revelling in her plot to turn the children of the world into mice. Her transformation to the polished, charismatic woman she pretends to be is all the more horrifying for it.


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An Féileacán Agus An Rí le Máire Zepf, maisithe ag Shona Shirley McDonald (8+)

An Féileacán Agus An Rí le Máire Zepf, maisithe ag Shona Shirley McDonald (8+)

The old Irish love story of Éadaoin and Mír has been told for a thousand years. This modern retelling has twists and turns but the baddie here is Fuamnach, a woman who is determined to marry King Mír and wants his true love Éadaoin out of the way. The baddies are a double act: Fuamnach goes to a druid in the woods to put a curse on Éadaoin. And so he does – he turns her into a beautiful red butterfly, destined to be blown on the winds all over Ireland. This version of the story ultimately has a happy ending, but this reminded me of another woman in Irish mythology: Aífe, the stepmother in the Children of Lir, painted darkly in Deirdre Sullivan’s young adult retelling, Savage Her Reply. 

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Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good by Louie Stowell (age 8+)

Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good by Louie Stowell (age 8+)

Norse god Loki is the worst of the worst – god of lies, the greatest trickster of all time. When a prank finally goes too far, he is stripped of his godly powers and banished from the land of the gods to live on earth as an eleven year old boy for a whole month. If he can’t show that he’s a better god after a month, he has to spend eternity in a pit of angry snakes. This is a bit like The Good Place for kids – Loki starts with -3000 Virtue Points and has to get to +3000. Can our villain change his nature or is he bad through and through? A funny read with doodles throughout and Book 2 due this August. Louie Stowell has a great back catalogue to check out, including Otherland which has a notable villain in the evil queen.


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Frankenstiltskin by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas (age 8+)

Frankenstiltskin by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas (age 8+)

You’re likely familiar with Rumpelstiltkin; a mischievous creature who helps a young girl impress the king, but at a great cost. In this, part two of the Fairy Tales Gone Bad trilogy, Joseph Coelho tells a twisted version of a familiar story. Bryony is an acclaimed taxidermist, but when her father boasts of her skills, the king demands an impossible task of her: to bring animals in his possession back to life! When all hope is lost, Bryony is approached by a strange creature who offers to help her – for a price. Frankenstiltskin is an excellent baddie – greedy and creepy and dark, his price for helping Bryony growing with each task. But will she defeat him in the end?

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Mr Spicebag by Freddie Alexander, illustrated by Helen O’Higgins (age 8+)

Mr Spicebag by Freddie Alexander, illustrated by Helen O’Higgins (age 8+)

This is a particularly Irish character, one who is described as a ‘greasy villain’. 10 year old George notices a mysterious change in his town following the arrival of Mr Spicebag’s chipper. His parents, and most other families in the town, are all of a sudden addicted to spicebags, and George is determined to figure out what’s behind Mr Spicebag’s mysterious power over the town. A veritable cast of villains include and angry headmaster, the school bully and George’s parents. George’s relationship with them is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda with her own family, and in fact the surreal, wacky humour in Mr Spicebag is perfect for Dahl fans.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (12+)

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (12+)

This series of dark, gothic books focus on the Baudelaire children: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. After their parents' death in a fire, the children are placed in the custody of a murderous distant relative and formidable baddie, Count Olaf. On taking custody of them, he gives them one bed to share, a pile of rocks to play with and has them perform menial work for his own amusement. In the first book, he attempts to force Violet into marriage by building the ceremony into a theatre play and casting her as his bride, a foiled attempt to steal the children’s inheritance. Across the series Count Olaf is responsible for murder, arson and much more – with 13 books and a Netflix series there’s plenty here to keep young readers going.


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The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking series) by Patrick Ness (YA)

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking series) by Patrick Ness (YA)

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of only men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. In the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him. He eventually stumbles upon a strange, silent creature: a girl. Her very presence tells him what he knows about the world is a lie – and the villain in this book responsible for those lies? Mayor David Prentiss of Prentisstown, a charming, power-hungry sociopath. In the second book of the series, he becomes the President of New World and dictator of New Prentisstown, and we see his use of propaganda and outright lies to maintain control. 


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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (YA)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (YA)

This series began at the same time as Chaos Walking and was absolutely enormous, as your listeners will know. Every year, children from the first 12 districts of Panem are selected via lottery to fight for their lives in a compulsory televised battle royale called The Hunger Games. Both the books and the movie adaptation feature a similar tyrannical leader to Chaos Walking in President Coriolanus Snow. Here we have another manipulative autocrat: he has been President for more than 40 years, he controls the lives of the participants in the games, takes hostages and kills his enemies without remorse. His symbol is a white rose, worn on his lapel and sometimes left behind in a sinister manner to let our hero Katniss Everdeen know he’s watching her.


Further recommendations

There are a huge number of stories for the younger age group about bad guys turned good, or mostly good:

  • The Bad Seed by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald about an actual sunflower seed who skips queues, doesn’t wash his hands and generally likes being a bit of a nuisance, but is learning to be *not that bad* any more
  • Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith, where sassy Little Red manages to braid the lion’s hair, brush his teeth and sit him down to share a basket of doughnuts
  • Isabelle and the Crooks by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by Chris Mould, featuring Isabelle Crook who doesn’t approve of her family’s lawbreaking ways and eventually convinces them that if they’re breaking and entering, it’ll be to return the swag they stole!