Note: originally written in 2012 by educator, mom, and “education diva,” Ruth Spivak with updates and revisions in 2020 by Melissa Taylor.
Mwahahaaaa! An awesome villain can really make a great children’s book. Oh sure, it’s great to have a hero who models virtue and courage, but it’s the villains who are often the most interesting and memorable characters. What would Charlie and the Chocolate Factory be without the outrageously spoiled Veruca Salt, or without gluttonous Augustus Gloop? In a word: BORING!
Yes, great villains are creepy, sly, and revolting, so why am I recommending your kids read them?
Why Kids Need Villain Characters
1. Villains teach children important lessons about coping with evil in our world. A lot to be learned from the effects of villains on other characters, and from the heroes who fight them. Examples:
a- Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
b- Even the most intimidating bully is weak at heart.
c- Friendship, persistence and honesty triumph over evil.
2. Villains are especially motivating for reluctant readers. Great villains add elements of humor and adventure that up the excitement in a book. I love it when kids rally with the hero for the downfall of the ridiculous villain.
The Best Villains in Children’s Books
From the biggest brats to the worst dictators, here are some of my favorite books with great villains for kids from ages 3-13.
AGES 3 and Up
FAIRY TALES! Read them to your kids, again and again. The language, characters, and plot have survived the test of time for a reason. I LOVE the villains in these two stories:
1 – THE WOLF: (Little Red Riding Hood by The Brothers Grimm.)
“All the better to hear you with my child.”
”But, Grandma, What big teeth you have!”
You know what comes next. This is nail-biting, on the edge of your seat, classic fairy tale villainy at its best.
2 – The Stepmother/Witch: (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by The Brothers Grimm.)
The Stepmother’s desire to be “the fairest of them all” fuels her obsession to rid the world of beautiful Snow White. I love the irony of this villain… In the name of beauty, she must transform herself into an ugly hag to murder her rival. Unable to find an accomplice, she does her own dirty work that ultimately results in her destruction. An old tale of vanity and ruthless ambition retold by the Brothers Grimm.
Ages 6 and Up
The sinister and the funny. At this age, kids can really begin to appreciate dark humor. Here are a few villains to laugh at:
1 – AUNT SPONGE AND AUNT SPIKER. (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.) These sisters take pleasure in insulting and starving their young nephew, who is far more intelligent than the two put together. In this children’s book, these most awful of villains come off as ridiculous which makes them all the more memorable. (A great one to read out loud to younger readers.)
2 – MR. GUM. (Mr. Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire by Andy Stanton.)
He never bathes, and he steals money He’s vile and yet downright funny. Quirky characters in the town of Lamonic Bibber round out this laugh out loud and clever book. Exceptionally motivating for reluctant readers, as it is a chapter book with few sentences on each page and some illustrations.
3- THE TRUNCHBULL. (Matilda by Roald Dahl.)
“I have never ben able to understand why small children are so disgusting. The are the bane of y life.” The Trunchbull loves to terrorize her students. Worse yet, she abuses them physically and throws them in the dreaded Chokey. We come to learn that she’s probably murdered poor Miss Honey’s parents to get their money. In short, this is one nasty lady …but young Matilda with her smarts and kindness beats this awful headmaster in the end. And we get the last laugh.
Age 9 and Up
Of course, not all villains in children’s books are funny. You already know the worst “bad guy” of middle-grade fiction, someone who is not redeemable…Lord Voldemort.
1- VOLDEMORT. (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.)
He’ll do anything including murder and lie to achieve power. And even followers, if you don’t perform up to his standards, there are no second chances. Lord Voldemort is the best villain in literature. He gives Harry Potter a bad guy to fight against and ultimately defeat showing children that good can triumph over evil.
2 – THE WHITE WITCH. (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis.)
The White Witch tempts young boys with hot chocolate and Turkish Delight (ewww) and then makes them slaves or turns them into stone. Underneath that beautiful face and body is cold-blooded evil. She’s a memorable children’s book villain with no redemption story arc.
3 – Napoleon (Animal Farm by George Orwell.)
“Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad!” While not technically a children’s book, most kids are required to read this in middle or high school so it should be included. Orwell captures all the intricacies of power corrupting a ruler. A great introduction to the Communist Revolution, without needing to know anything about that particular revolution. Characteristics of tyranny and dictatorship are conveyed in a way that’s far from dry. Kids appreciate Orwell’s insight into the workings of social dynamics. Napoleon is the bully who uses fear and slick words to play everyone to his advantage.
So, the next time you’re looking for a book your kids will love, think evil! Some of the meanest, baddest, villains around are the ticket for motivation, great discussions, and education.
Do you or your kids have a favorite villain?