|Piggy Pie, Margie Palatini, illus. by Howard Fine|
Jump to Teaching With the Lists
My "iLearn Essay" - I have written in a form students should be practicing in middle school. The essay is a record of a journey to learning and realization.
Yet another school year dedicated to bullying causes me to wonder why our kids are not getting the point. I have decided that the approach must be wrong. The focus of every program I have experienced or reviewed is What to do as a victim or onlooker. Perhaps the focus should be on the bully - Why does she do it? What is she after? [update 10/16/13: empathy for the bad guy is the topic of a recent scientific study, which suggests to me that the more literately drawn the bad guy is, the more complex the reading experience will be.]
I have not met in education or other life many adults who truly bullied me - exactly two. The things they did, to me and to others, were equivalently unpleasant. Yet the two could not have been more different in method, in motive, in planning, in rationalization, in ethics, and in the nature of their actions. The word bad does not begin to describe these bullies as individuals, but, from my perspective, the word Bad does provide an adequate encapsulation of their actions. The important bold point is this: We do not understand individuals or their actions through plot lines. We learn about individuals and actions by studying people.
But teachers know this. So do good parents. Understanding individuals requires effort, attention, patience, and - generally - creativity. Which, in my mind, makes the study of the Bad Guy a perfect focus for addressing Common Core reading and writing skills at any level. As characters, the Great and Almost-Great Bad are far more challenging than the good guys.
But the Bad Guy (by any name) is rarely studied in the classroom, dismissed as either shallow or too hard to handle. Googling "bad guys in video games" yielded 330,000,000 hits, but "bad guys in literature" yielded only 1/5 of that. Sites such as BretiLinks and Schmoop ignore the Bad or, at best, give the Bad Guy cursory mention under the term Antagonist.
You will remember that the origin of Protagonist is in Greek theater. The term was used for the actor who played the chief part, often meaning he who literally entered the stage first. Not all protagonists were Good Guys. Consider Medea and Agamemnon - complex people whose actions are not good and who fit my definition of the Almost-Great Bad-Action Guy. When we study Medea, we study choices, morality and the nature of our relationship to life and death. We think and feel deeply.
Generally, the protagonist's - hence the child/almost-adult/adult reader's - point of view clouds his perception of the complex nature of the fictional antagonist. Siding with the piggies in Piggy Pie, we delight in the demise of Gritch the Witch. But by stepping back to explore her (OK, relatively flat) character, we come to realize with this reviewer that she has "a comic audacity that makes her trouncing all the better" (Amazon). How the middle school hallways would change if children delighted in the trouncing of bullies!
Bad Guys should be studied, and it is far safer for a middle school to study them in fiction than in fact. This study should be an entry into The Race to Stop Bullying. So I propose that there be, at least once in each year, a shift in focus - from the Good Guy to the Bad Guy. As is true in any text selection process, only the best examples should be used for study. So what follows is a guide to selecting texts with Great Bad Guys, with further argument for the importance of the proposed unit.
A Great Bad Guy is a round character - understood in motive, thought, feelings, and actions. He [of course She also] is multi-leveled and complex. We develop a perverse sympathy for the Great Bad Guy, a push-pull attraction like that of a moth circling a candle. This character's depth is less about his actions than about why he is bad and why he chooses to continue being bad. We carefully consider his options as we read. We delight in his fall, and we remember it.
Or, as stated in The Top 100 Videogame Villains : "So what makes a great villain? He or she not only has to pose a real threat to the hero, but they have to be memorable. It's a villain's destiny to be defeated. That's just how it goes. But when the villain lives on in our hearts rather than the hero, they've won in their own way."
This is not the stuff of picture books and fairy tales; it is the stuff of analysis.
Bringing Bad Guys to the attention of the Almost-Adult reader is important. Grade 7 or 8 is high time for students to begin meta-thinking about ethics and morality. Many 6's are ready as well. The problem is that kids are learning a lot about what it means to be a bully-fighter, a successful protagonist, but learning little about what makes the antagonist tick. All kids have in them the seeds of Bad. We don't want to just hate those impulses - we want to understand them.
My husband and I have just finished reading a series of mysteries called Shardlake, by C.J. Sansom. Because we were reading as a 2-person lit-circle (on iPad and Kindle), we talked. Much as the horrific England of Henry VIII's last years depressed us, the Bad Guys in the books enervated us. There is no one slimy-badder than Richard Rich, no motives more unforgiving than those of the Duke of Norwich. These were historically real people - what they do in the book they actually did do, in concept if not in actuality. Great Bad People are plentiful in history, which is another reason students need to begin to think about them. But in made-up life it is not easy to find Great Bad Guys. That is even more true in middle-level than in adult level fiction.
As John and I discussed Shardlakes's nemeses, all of whom were totally creepy but also all of whom fell short of the roundness of Great, I asked John (also a retired ELA teacher), about truly Great Bad Guys he has met in literature. Shakespeare's Richard III, Macbeth, Edmund, Claudius, Iago... Dickens' Uriah Heep, Scrooge (before he is reformed), Madame Defarge... We concluded that the list of Great Bad Guys in adult fiction is remarkably short, and largely confined to the works of the great pre-20th century writers and those modern novelists who set out to develop all major characters thoroughly and who do not shy away from deeply drawn, ambivalent Bad (Morrison, Knowles, and Penn Warren, McCarthy, King, and Larsson come to mind). I did find online this list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature, but only 11 can possibly be considered YA and only two would be at all appealing to today's students. The list is a bit out of date, and I don't agree with its choices anyway. So I have decided to make my own list.
Villains are Bad, no doubt about that. They are memorable for their actions. But to return to my definition, they are not Great unless their appeal lies more in their complexity than in their actions. Villains, by and large, comprise the stereotype that students should learn to identify. It is, however, rare to find a complex villain in almost-adult level print fiction. There may, in fact, be more complexity in comic book, video game and film villains than there is in print. Why is this? Because these are powerful media for kids who want to face down Bad. And media is built on stereotype. For the most part, print can go deeper.
|Woolvs in the Sitee, Wild and Spudvilas|
What about Cruelty?
"Just as ants will bring down a slug and then carry it away (we saw it on TV), so the Spotty Bulorb is surrounded in its sleep, worn down and then killed. While its children watch! Or maybe you killed them first? OK, so it's just like nature. But nature is so cruel" (The Top 10 Game Bad Guys You Don't Want to Kill).
Cruel is the most common 1-word analysis of the Bad Guy. Cruel describes an action more accurately than it describes a person. As the above quotation indicates, cruelty does not choose favorites: a protagonist will be cruel in order to win, in error, or in anger. Do we then label that (generally remorseful) character as Bad? Cruel is the descriptor most basic to Bad stereotype, and therefore most to be avoided as a label. It is best to always discuss motive along with actions.
Ironically, the most powerfully drawn Bad Guys operate on the protagonists with the inevitability of elemental forces, making it easy to view them as such. This is not good enough. These characters need to be clearly identified for what they are, in all the aspects of character.
|Jabberwocky, illustrated by Christopher Myers|
A note about parallel informational text: I don't find it at all surprising that YA fiction stops short of drawing the Bad Guy roundly. Real bad guys do terrible things to millions of innocent people. I googled "bad guys list" and quickly found this list of the Top 10 Most Evil Men. I suppose if you have to accommodate the Common Core by finding non-fiction text to parallel novels and stories, you might share this list with middle schoolers. Most middle schoolers love to list gruesome facts, make timelines, t-shirts, vodcasts, and Keynotes about information. There are also undoubtedly local news reports of murder, rape and abuse - a community connection to information - that can be read as parallel texts.
What really would be gained by this parallel reading? I have a brilliant friend who has spent much of his adult life trying to understand - to think around - Nazism and Fascism. His writing is dense and psychological. Not middle school stuff. At best, a middle schooler researching Hitler would find the actions interesting in a push-pull way, but the person would be understood in as a 1-dimensional, stereotypical bad-guy. There is NO true learning in this type of interaction with text. And I doubt that there can be at this level.
This leads me to believe that a middle-level understanding of historical bad guys and real bad guys is best gained through fiction. Exploration of a fictional Almost-Great Bad Guy, deeply discussed with peers, can lead to insights into the world of Bad, just as a toddler gains understanding of real-world fears by reading a "scary" book over and over again. Authors of books for children, after all, bring adult understandings of Bad to their creations. In the best literature, the child reader, of any age, is given more information than he can process. Intuitively, the reader returns again and again to the book, the picture, the Bad Guy in a series, to thresh out what this Badness is all about. Pulling the resulting connections forward is what reading-for-understanding is all about.
So teachers must take the time to:
- select the best fiction and
- talk about and focus upon the Bad Guys, not just their good-guy opponents (and, generally, conquerors).
Is Bad different for girl readers? Many almost-adult girl readers prefer romance or realistic fiction to fantasy/SF, historical fiction, or adventure (in my experience, it is about half and half). Although my definition of the Almost-Great Bad Guy works across genre, it is interesting to note that there are patterns of Bad that are found almost totally in romance and "for girls" realistic fiction.
|Polomoche - Babar and Zephir - a predator?|
- The sexual predator. I can not do a better job with this concept that that done in YA, Romance and Rape Culture. This essay needs to be read, and its ideas discussed, with almost-adult girl readers of this genre. I have put on my list a few titles mentioned in the post (and the linked-to post), but not Lovely Bones, which many of my girls would want to see included.
- The queen bee. Boys are not interested in this very female type of bullying, but many girls thrive on the series devoted to Queens and Wannabe's. I am putting only The Clique series on my list, judging others to be too vapid or too sexually charged (read more in Naomi Wolf's article), but any middle or high school library will carry many titles in this genre. It is interesting to me that although the Queen Bee is a Bad Guy, and in at least one Clique book an Almost-Great Bad Guy, it is girl culture that is the true Bad Guy. This is a realization for the adult reader, however, making The Clique a good litmus test for passage to almost-adult reading.
What are the important connections between the Almost-Great Bad Guy and the Protagonist?
It is critically important for middle schoolers also to look at the nature of the antagonist independent from that of the hero. As the hero grows and changes, so does the Almost-Bad Guy, the best of whom are remarkably adaptable. In fact, they may make a journey which is almost a mirror image of that taken by the hero.
As the perceptive adult reader knows, in the best literature bad is as complex as good, often more so. Understanding this complexity is the key to a successful completion of the hero's journey. We see this element of Bad in the clues followed by Indiana Jones, in Gollum's teasings, in the riddles that must be solved in classic fantasies such as Over Sea, Under Stone, and in the many quests of Harry Potter. A successful hero must agree to battle complexity, or he will not win. It is only through analysis leading to this conclusion that the developing-adult reader can buy into, or connect with, the importance of emulating the positive traits of the hero. There is no heightened understanding to be had in reading fiction with a "just Cruel" or "just Evil" antagonist.
What are the criteria for selection to my lists? The Almost-Great Bad Guy:
- is gradually drawn or gradually introduced into the story, not a stereotype appearing suddenly in the plot as a complete creation. This is a major differentiation between "literary" characters and "fairy tale" or "picture book" characters - the reader should feel realization rather than surprise. Good writers will use many techniques of description, foreshadowing, metaphor, association, and symbolism to accomplish this character development;
- is unique in some way, compared to characters in other middle-level fiction. Although recognition of character patterns and models is an important challenge to the developing-adult reader, defining unique characterization is even more important;
- has a least a modicum of complexity in and of himself. Often this takes the form of a character weakness, an error made, or another chink that the protagonist exploits. The more gradually this complexity is revealed the better. In the Almost-Great Bad Guy, this chink serves to replace true character complexity and arouses curiosity or questioning in the almost-adult reader;
- (related to #3) is not just Evil, and may not even contain elements of Evil. However, any discussion of Bad Guys must also be a discussion of Evil. Where is the line between good and evil drawn by the author? in life? in other books? This is a great use of a Concept Definition Map (see Teaching);
- is not a pure contrast to or opposite of the protagonist. That is a fairy-tale solution. Bad and Good should have a least one significant trait in common, which means that the Bad Guy does not have to be older, taller, smaller, smarter, stronger or anything more or less than the protagonist, just badder.
- "Hansel and Gretel"
- "Jack and the Beanstalk"
- "The Snow Queen"
- A retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur (check out this great Wondermark comic)
- Alice in Wonderland - any format, even Disney, will show the Red Queen for the bad gal she is, but other characters should also be discussed
- Chalk - Thomson - picture book
- Babar and Zephir - de Brunhoff - picture book - Polomoche is a fascinating Bad Guy who nearly gains Almost-Great status. The blogger of Vintage Kids' Books agrees with me.
- Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust - Bunting - picture book - connection to reality (Holocaust) - can students suggest other books that make connections to reality-Bad?
- The Lion and the Mouse - Pickney - picture book - discuss POV and absence of Evil here, as well as the weakness chink
- The Wolves in the Walls - Gaimen - picture book - another discussion of POV - nice for its humor
- Piggie Pie - Palatini - picture book - a witch with a personality
- Dhegdeer: A Scary Somali Folktale - Hassan - picture book
- Woolvs in the Sitee - Wild - picture book to take seriously - this one disappeared twice from my grade 7 classroom library
- Jabberwocky - illustrated by Myers (get that one) - you might do an all-class read-aloud of the Lewis Carroll before introducing this picture book - preconceptions and stereotype must enter the discussion here
- The Widow's Broom - van Allsburg - picture book - all van Allsburg has a deeper level
- X-men and other comic books - leave this up to your kids - prices have gone up on comics, so you may only get a few contributions to the class library, but there is a free DC Comics app!
- Beowulf - a graphic novel or comic book version is great for this unit - Grendel's mother is the focus, but the arrival of Grendel should not be ignored
- Coraline - Gaimen - movie or read-aloud
- Weasel (also below) - many students will have met this book in earlier grades
Elemental Forces / Situations Beyond Protagonist's Control
- "The Lottery" - Jackson - this is an excellent story for Reader's Theater - dystopian
- "Harrison Bergeron" - Bradbury
- Pod - Wallenfels - fear of faceless aliens - human Bad Guys also surface in one of the scenarios, providing the underlying irony in the novel
- Ship Breaker - Bacigalupi - situational, societal Bad - also a few human Bad Guys
- Unwind - Schusterman - Bad Guys surface eventually, but the societal Bad is really what drives the novel
- The Declaration - Malley - government, but an interesting Headmistress character (close to being Almost-Great)
- How I Live Now - Rosoff - terrorists, war
- Life as We Knew It - Pfeffer - astronomical disaster - I love the persistent optimism that rises above the Bad in this book - can be a read-aloud
- Little Brother - Doctorow - societal, government - also one good individual Bad Gal
- Fahrenheit 451 - Bradbury - societal, government, but also a good Monster and an Almost-Great antagonist
- "The Red Room" - Wells - fear itself (available online)
- The Lord of the Flies - Golding - situation
- The Chocolate War - Cormier - school society
- Give a Boy a Gun - Strasser - society, peer pressure, bullying
- End Game - Garden [I suggest you read it first] - society, peer pressure, bullying
- Wringer - Spinelli - peer pressure
- The Wave - Strasser - bullying
- Witness - Hesse - KKK, racism
- Once - Gleitzman - Holocaust
- Milkweed - Spinelli - Holocaust
- Night - Wiesel - Holocaust
- Skeleton Man - Bruchac - creature - would be a good read-aloud
- Candor - Bachorz - father
- The Dark Portal - Jarvis - mysterious creature, bad rats (I love this book)
- Rash - Hautman - prison guards - the Bad is realistic, even though this is SF - interesting paired with Holes
- The Book Without Words - Avi - magician - wonderful somewhat humorous scenes with Bad Guy
- The Mysterious Benedict Society - Stewart - human
- H.I.V.E. (series - read 1st one first) - Warner - good model of genre - human
- Shadow Thieves - Ursu - gods and forces
- The Knife of Never Letting Go (3 in the series) - Ness - human man - wonderful contrast of men/monsters throughout the series - the Bad definitely gets badder as the series progresses
- The Hunger Games - Collins - human men & women - all 3 in series are good, but #3 has the best of everythng
- Clay - Almond - kid - retelling of the Golem story, so pair it with a Golem picture book or graphic novel - are "monsters" always Bad?
- Good Omens - Pratchett and Gaimen - agents of God and Devil - a real challenge
- The Book of Lost Things - Connolly - creature
- The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings - Tolkien (read for Gollum especially)
- The House of the Scorpion - Farmer - humans, some old, some not so
- Twilight - Meyer - creatures - not my choice, but I give in to pressure from my girls - movie tie-in
- The Gunslinger (Dark Tower, Book 1) - King - human - not a "kids' book" but probably the best book on this list at identifying a complex protaganist (who can be very Bad) as well as other Bad Guys - would be interesting paired with the excellent graphic novel version and with Graceling (Cashore) or Mockingjay (Hunger Games, Book 3), which also contain ambivalent heroism
- Holes - Sachar - guards, including a woman - what great bad guys!
- The Clique - Lisi Harrison - mean girls, in series
- Revolver - Sedgwick - adult man
- Hush, Hush - Fitzpatrick - sexual predator - use with caution
- I am the Cheese - Cormier - adult man - has a movie tie-in
- A Separate Peace - Knowles (does anyone read this anymore?) - teen
- Monster - Myers - teen, but also Society
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- Snow White (Disney)
- Star Wars (all are good, Darth Vader most interesting)
- The Golden Compass
- 101 Dalmatians
- It - not for the faint of stomach
- Bat Man
- Road to Perdition - excellent for advanced students when paired with King's The Gunslinger
- Independence Day - interesting, light pairing with Knife of Never Letting Go
- Video Games: World of Warcraft (any - use with curriculum), Legend of Zelda (any), Final Fantasy VII, LittleBigPlanet (because this is a community game, you might have to introduce the students to Collector as part of front-loading)
Essential Questions for Discussion/Writing
- Are all Bad Guys Evil? What are the differences between Evil and Bad?
- What is the connection between Actions and the people who perform them?
- What are the UR, or common, traits of Bad Guys? of Bad Forces? Think of both physical and personality/character traits. Do these traits hold up in real life?
- How have stereotyped Bad Guys/Gals evolved in today's fiction, movies, TV, comics?
- Why are Bad Guys bad? (What are the motives of Bad Guys?)
- How do Bad Guys/ Bad Forces in fiction have a relevance beyond building plot and contrasting to the hero's/protagonist's character?
- What are the connections between Bad Guys and the Settings in which they operate?
- What connections can be made between the most successful Bad Guys in fiction and real (living or historical) bad people? How can reading fiction help you gain better insights into real bad people? There is a great opportunity to connect to both history and current events in this unit. A read-aloud of Yep's short classic Hiroshima or selections from They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky or Little Bee will provoke a cross-over discussion.
- What are the major tools used by protagonists to battle Bad Guys? Is there a priority list? Is this list applicable to your battles with everyday bad people?
- What can be learned from the names given to Bad Guys?
- Begin with children's texts and video - embed stereotypes in this unit! Have students make suggestions for content and share personal favorites
- Create a reader's wiki like Spleefmistress' Guide to Being Evil - but make it focus on Being Really Bad - the Motives and Careers sections are especially important, and I would add Actions as a category (I would not show the model site to the kids, by the way - just create a similar format and have them build on it)
- Brainstorm/Concept Definition Map BAD - divide the exercise into "related words" - "connected reality" - "words beginning with..." - "images that come to mind" - Do the same with Evil - Do the same with Good or Hero
- Journal BAD - in the middle-level grades, this can be a cross between a diary and a journal. I would suggest writing for at least 5 minutes every class during the unit - You can jump start writing with a list of situations or places students can connect to (e.g. kindergarten, playground, lockers, revenge, bullying, Facebook...) and build up to journaling about the readings
- Use the district/school handbook as a literacy source: what are Bad actions in terms of the rules? How do they mesh with actions in the reading?
- Comics - use paper or digital tools to generate comic retellings of novels from the Bad Guy POV
- Other writing activities might include: advice columns, diaries/media pages, Facebook pages - assign anything generally done from the protagonist POV
- Film shorts of climactic scenes/important scenes from the POV of or highlighting the Bad Guy
- Video humorous or satirical "news reports" and documentaries
- Have students diagram the Bad Guy's Journey, ala Campbell (above). An alternative diagram is found here. Discuss the differences between this and the hero's journey
- If you want to make the video games connection (which I highly suggest as a choice), also make use of online resources - most games have character descriptions online, as well as discussion boards (example: Collector, from The LittleBigPlanet)
- "The nature of evil characters in fantasy"
- WoWinSchool - A Hero's Journey
- YA, Romance and Rape Culture
- The Hunger Games reviewed - discussion of Dystopian fiction and teens in The New Worker
- Jervis: Hypotheses on Misperception (summarized) - as readers, we are guilty of similar misperceptions (that is the correct word) with regard to Bad Guys, especially Great Bad Guys - often, young protagonists are similarly confused about the complexity of their foes
- Top 100 Videogame Villains - countdown - can be used with students as literacy texts, but also provides teacher with some insights into how villains are designed for today's kids, principles rarely applied to literature (even of the "C" level variety). The names of the Bad Guys is a great study in and of itself.