The world is full of antiheroes, from Stephen Dedalus to Severus Snape (somebody go write Portrait of a Wizard As A Young Man). Not only do complex characters who reside somewhere between good and bad introduce kids to the real world’s complex value system, they’re just more interesting — or did you not watch Breaking Bad? Here are 10 books that feature characters with questionable motives who just might teach your kid a thing or 2 about morality and redemption.
If Gru went to Hogwarts, it’d be this tale of a school that teaches kids how to be crooks. First, students have to be “kidnapped” to get in (sounds like an Ivy League school), and their classmates double as literal partners-in-crime. As everyone learned from Oceans 11, stealing is fun as long as you do it a) with style and b) to screw over someone worse than you.
Ages: 5 -7 Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner ($17)
In this darker Goldilocks And The 3 Bears Bears, 3 robbers break into quaint country homes to swipe all kinds of non-porridge related items. However, when they stumble upon a young girl, their hearts turn to gold. The author has been called “the direct, natural descendent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen,” and those guys were pretty good at the dark kids tales.
Ages: 3-6 The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer ($17)
It’s important to teach your children that there are always 2 sides to every story (they can discover Rashomon when they go to film school). In this book, the Big Bad Wolf’s version of what really went down with the whole “huff, and puff, and blowing houses down” makes those pigs look like, well, pigs. And if they lied about the Wolf, what else are these porkers hiding?
All hail the greatest villain of all time, Darth Vader (with Jar Jar a close second). In Jeffrey Brown’s reimagining, Anakin sticks around after the young Skywalker is born. As you find out, he’s a pretty hands-on Dad who never misses a lightsaber practice. It kind of makes you wonder what other Star Wars characters would have turned out like if they had a strong, intergalactic role model.
This is a testament to what can happen when you build your little super-villain’s confidence up so much, he is stunned to realize he’ll have to compete with even more talented demons to be the most evil of them all. Think of this like the comic book cautionary tale of the Affluenza teen.
Ages: 4-6 Dylan the Villain by KG Campbell ($18)
What is a villain’s best weapon? Their mind? When was the last time someone’s mind was able to bite off your leg? Alan is an alligator who took his chompers out one night only to wake up to find the source of all his intimidation also went missing. So, like, the opposite of what happens when Grandpa takes his teeth out.
Ages: 2-5 Alan’s Big Scary Teeth by Javis ($17)
Villains are made, not born. Take this kind bear, who was just minding his own business when he accidentally broke a girl’s kite. She brands him “horrible”, so he actually becomes horrible. Beyond her weird mind games, the book does point out the importance of forgiveness, and not freaking out about an $9 kite.
Greek mythology has come up with a few excellent villains. Take Pan, the goat-legged man-beast whose raison d’etre is creating complete and utter mayhem. Of course, the point of the story isn’t to make your kid think they can grow up to f–k things up and play a flute, but rather to illustrate that even parents who were gods on Mount Olympus have to deal with unruly kids.
Ages: 5-9 I Am Pan by Mordicai Gerstein ($19)
You’ve always told your kids that if they didn’t eat their vegetables, the vegetables would eat them and everyone they cared about (as illustrated by the 1978 documentary Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes). This story about a zucchini who “gets steamed” when the science fair judge wants to eat him, rather than award his project, will definitely put that squash on the dinnertime hit list.
Anthropomorphic crayons are a huge kid’s book subgenre (looking at you, The Day The Crayons Quit), but this one is done a little differently. Author Michael Hall smashes the fourth wall (yes, like Frankenstein’s monster) and lets the reader go behind the scenes of telling the tale of Frankencrayon. As turns out, someone scribbled in the pages, threatening to cancel the entire book. If your kid actually colors in this book things may get too meta.
Ages: 4-8 Frankencrayon by Michael Hall ($18)