BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay

Bad GirlsIf beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then perhaps bad behavior might be, too. “In this book we are taking a look back through history at all manner of famous female felons,” write mother/daughter author-team Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple (who, between them, have hundreds and hundreds of titles). From as far back as 110 BCE to the 20th century, Bad Girls includes 26 women who have quite the historical rap sheet. But were they all really that bad? “Every crime – no matter how heinous – comes with its own set of circumstances, aggravating and mitigating, which can tip the scales of guilt. And views change.”

Salome, she of the dance of the seven veils who was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, might have been just 10 or 11 (!!) and easily manipulated by the adults around her. Bloody Mary was a highly educated, sought-after Princess who was declared suddenly illegitimate, then banished at the whim of her own philandering father King Henry VIII. The slave Tituba, who only did her young charges’ bidding, could only escape hanging if she confessed to being a witch. Madame Alexe Popova helped desperate wives off their cruel husbands – over 300 of those bad boys. Typhoid Mary was never ill herself, but she was a typhoid carrier who wouldn’t let the doctors fix her infection-ridden gallbladder, even for free … if you were healthy, would you submit to the knife?

Decades, centuries, millenia later, how might these women be judged now? “As our world changes, so does our definition of bad,” Yolen and Stemple remind us. “[Y]ou will have to decide for yourself if they were really bad, not so bad, or somewhere in the middle. And perhaps you will see that even the baddest of bad girls may have had a good reason for what she did.”

Admittedly a page-turner – like a mangled train wreck, you can’t look away, except to flip the page – Bad Girls is a unique hybrid of short biographies with a graphic twist: each chapter ends with a graphic novel/manga-style conversation (hurray for Rebecca Guay‘s multi-varied ease in changing styles) between mother and daughter, debating the good, bad, and the often ugly circumstances. Their exchanges are cutesy, off-the-cuff, albeit with a few too many predictable quips – “The Tudors were a nasty bunch. Always sneaking and scheming” gets the expected reply, “Rather like modern politicians.” Yolen seems to be the older, wiser voice while Stemple is quick with her 21st-century judgments of “icky” and apparently more concerned about her wardrobe (her shoe-obsession – misplaced attempt at humor? – seems totally out-of-place). That said, let the bad girls speak for themselves. Read at your own risk … then be sure to decide for yourself.

Tidbit: Younger readers might better enjoy The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, a thus-far seven-title collection featuring women who lived by their own rules (the series and Bad Girls have Cleopatra and (Bloody) Mary Tudor in common). Older readers should definitely check out this TEDxVancouver talk, “The Sociology of Gossip,” about what gossip – especially about supposedly badly-behaved women – says about our so-called modern society. It’s an eye-, ear-, and brain-opener!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013


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