Hellion or Heroine?

BadGirls_300Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains
By Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
Illustrated by Rebecca Guay
(Charlesbridge, 2013, Boston, $18.95)

Just how villainous were history’s most notorious female villains? Were they the product of difficult circumstances, their reputations sealed by historical bias? Or were some of these women as cruel and ruthless as they seem? How has our evolving understanding of gender roles shaped our perceptions of these alleged spies, seductresses, and slaughterers?

These are just some of the questions Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple raise in Bad Girls, their young adult collective biography of history’s most controversial women. The mother-daughter writing team profile twenty-six female villains, including biblical temptresses, monarchs, pirates, serial killers, spies, Wild West hell raisers, and gangsters’ molls. Each breezily written entry summarizes the woman’s life and alleged crimes. At the end of each profile, the authors playfully debate the woman’s guilt, with Stemple prosecuting and Yolen defending. Illustrator Rebecca Guay expertly depicts this repartee in graphic novel style panels; she employs other styles of illustration to create amusing, sensual, and sometimes unsettling portraits of the book’s subjects.

Despite its considerable style, Bad Girls could, occasionally, benefit from more substance. Wikipedia and About.com appear in the bibliography; surely, enough excellent biographies of Catherine the Great and Mary I exist that writers need not rely on such basic – and questionable – internet sources. However, Bad Girls never attempts to be a definitive authority on its subjects. Instead, it invites readers to weigh the evidence, ask questions, and admit they’ll never know the whole story. In the end, the biography is as much an introduction to a type of critical thinking – one that constantly questions its own biases and perceptions – as it is to the villainesses themselves.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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