Villains Night Out
Critique of A Villain’s Night Out
by Margaret Mahy
Formby Mackinaw (who is about eleven) is told by his teacher to write a book for the school library. He is not a goody–goody so he has no intention of trying, but a name, Squidgy Moot, comes to him on the way home from school. Soon the fantasy begins as Squidgy Moot appears as a real person who follows Formby home from school and insists that he write the book. Formby finds writing the book very compelling, especially after Minnie, Formby’s little sister, adds her own little sister character and little sister action. The adventure is told in alternating chapters of Formby’s life and the story he is writing. In the fantasy world the evil Count Aspio from a computer game is in danger of becoming realer–than–real and taking over the world while in the real world Formby must deal with the bully Aspen Twinkler and his annoying little sister. Everything turns out happily in the end, except that the evil Count Aspio is seen in their pumpkins and Formby and Minnie have to start writing another book to deal with him.
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Readers of around seven years old and up to around eleven years old will enjoy A Villain’s Night Out. It could be read aloud to six or seven year olds who are used to longer read–alouds. It is exciting enough to entice reluctant readers and funny and complex enough to satisfy advanced readers. The fantastic elements make this a complex book. It has two points of view portrayed. The text alternates between Formby Mackinaw’s real life and the life of the characters in the book he is writing, which appears in italics. Despite this complexity the story is easy to follow. The time moves straight forward with no flashbacks and the action moves the book along fast.
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The old–fashioned word “villain” in the title gives the potential child reader the idea that this book will have a battle between good characters and bad characters as well as action and adventures. The book delivers all this. “A Night Out” is a pun. Usually this phrase means an evening outside the home for a social event, such as a trip to the movies or a restaurant for a child. In this case, it also means the villai’s night out in the real world instead of just being a character in a computer game.
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The parts of A Villain’s Night Out that portray Formby Mackinaw’s real world do so extremely well. Sutherland (page 317) says realistic fiction should “help children better understand the problems and issues of their own lives, empathize with other people, and see the complexities of human relationships.” A Villain’s Night Out does this very well through its depiction of sibling rivalry, bullying and boredom with school. All of these are serious problems that are important to children.
Formby is our hero, but he does not like school. We know from the first page that he is not a goody–goody who will grin and listen hard when the teacher suggests it. He is a rebel who says on page 23 that he has been “forced to spend valuable time at school against [his] will.” This is a humorous statement, but also one that will ring true to many children who have felt exactly the same at some point.
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From the first moment the reader meets Formby Mackinaw’s little sister, Minnie, we know there is strong rivalry between the siblings. “Minnie was in the kitchen pouring herself a glass of milk and listening in to other people’s business – something she was always doing” (page 8). Minnie insists that she helps Formby with his story but he turns her down scornfully. She then sneaks into his room and adds a brave and clever little sister character to Formby’s Squidgy Moot story. At first Formby sees Minnie as evil but the worst she can do to him is threaten, “to tell Mum.” When they meet true evil in the form of Count Aspio they work together to overcome him.
The bully Aspen Twinkler is a huge worry to Formby Mackinaw. The importance of the bullying theme is shown by Aspen Twinkler’s early appearance in the book, on the third page. Aspen Twinkler is bigger than Formby and uses his pointy elbows to prevent Formby from playing his favorite game at the video arcade. Inventing the villain Count Aspio helps Formby Mackinaw overcome his fear of the bully. They also forge a connection through the book Formby is writing as Aspen Twinkler wants to illustrate it. By the end of the book Aspen Twinkler gains respect for Formby because of his writing and Formby and Aspen even become friends.
Although the characters in the book are living in a partially fantastic world they are very realistically portrayed. For example, the reader can believe that Formby has conflicts and jealousies with his little sister, but that they learn to cooperate. The adults in the book are portrayed realistically, if humorously. The high interest the teachers have in coffee and their pleasure (though somewhat self congratulatory) at Formby producing such a fine book rings true. It would be hard to believe the complete reformation of the bully, Aspen Twinkler, but Margaret Mahy has him call Formby and threaten him with pointy knees in the last few pages.
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A fantasy must have “a self contained logic, a wholeness of conception that has its own reality” (Sutherland, page 227). It also “must have consistency and logic” (Sutherland, page 228). A Villain’s Night Out contains an immutable rule that the story Formby writes becomes the life and reality for Squidgy Moot even though Squidgy Moot also exists in Formby’s world. On pages 30 and 31 we learn that Formby cannot simply tear out the pages that his little sister has written because he will also tear out Squidgy Moot. Also on page 61 the words that Formby doesn’t like cannot be scribbled out or Squidgy Moot will suffer agony.
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A good children’s book reflects children’s needs (Sutherland, page 18), including the need to achieve. The successful attainment of the need to achieve is shown in A Villain’s Night Out through Formby Mackinaw starting out as an indifferent student in school who the teacher does not expect much from. “’I’ll believe your four chapters when I see the’, she said in a suspicious voice.” (page 74). Her indifference to him changes to her enthusiasm when she reads his book. “But I must know what happens next. Come on, Formby! Give me a clue,” she begs Formby under the disapproving gaze of the goody–goodies in the class. Then she tells the class, “I want all of you to do just as well as Formby. Formby you have special permission to work on your story for the rest of the morning” (page 92). At the satisfying conclusion of the book Formby Mackinaw gets recognition of his skills from both the school and his parents. The school gives him a prize for his book and his father tells him that of course he can use the computer, “I know I can trust kids who have written a book with gold printing on the cover.” (page 138).
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A Villain’s Night Out is very funny as well as very exciting. As Sutherland (page 228) points out, “Playfulness and humor seem to have a particular place in fantasy.” This book is humorous in the way many of the adults act, in the wordplay and in the characters’ names.
The adults around Formby Mackinaw are portrayed as funny. His parents like to watch disreputable television programs about drug dealers and crime in a large hospital but they try to hide this from their children and pretend that they like watching arts programs. The television programs that Formby’s parents enjoy have the same fast paced action and suspense as the book that Formby is writing. Children are happy to admit that they like this sort of entertainment while the adults try to pretend they are above it.
One example of wordplay is the two important puns on the word Internet. The characters climb up in the professors’ house through an internut, which is a many–branched tree with ladders. Formby Mackinaw ties up his diary with an complicated sister–proof interknot. Another example of wordplay is the Noble Prize for Computer Games (page 12) and the Nobel Prize for Bloodthirsty Stories (page 42). These are obviously not real Nobel Prizes but they are prizes that would be more interesting to children, many of whom think Nobel prizes in Physics or Literature are boring.
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The names of the characters are fun and rhythmic and often say something about their personalities. For example the two Professors Mockery are extremely clever. The world believes the little sister Elsivera Mockery is an artist and the big brother Waldo Mockery is a scientist and inventor. In secret their roles are reversed. They are making a mockery of gender roles and the worl’s expectations. The names Formby and Minnie Mackinaw don’t mean anything but they are unusual, strong sounding names with rhythm that begs them to be said aloud and rolled off the tongue. Squidgy Moot is a great name for a villain. The word “Squidgy” could imply something soft and cuddly or perhaps something slimy like a squid and Squidgy Moot’s character changes throughout the book so he can be anything.
A Villain’s Night Out could be genuinely scary but the humor helps mitigate that. When Count Aspio and the computer game creatures first appear in real life they are frightening. “There appeared a warrior with hairy ears and curling horns. His bright–red eyes glittered with an evil, alien light. His elbows looked like swords. Behind him writhed a hundred spiked serpentine aliens with crests and fangs and glaring yellow eyes” (page 54), but we know that heroes with names like Squidgy Moot or Elsivera and Waldo Mockery must win.
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A Villain’s Night Out contains a strong symbol of a gift giving the recipient the power to unlock the secrets of the universe. The diary that Formby got as a Christmas present from his uncle (page 9) seemed useless because it was, after all, two years out of date. On the other hand, Formby finds that using it allows him to unlock the story of Squidgy Moot. On page 14 Squidgy Moot is using the door unlocker that he also received as a Christmas present. This is unlocking doors in a much more concrete way. The gift of a blank book unlocks Formby’s creativity just as much as the gift of Squidgy Moot’s door unlocker enables the action in the story.
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Margaret Mahy does a wonderful job of creating the professors’ house with its eccentricities. It is unusual and appealing. Most children could not resist the idea of living in a tall house with a tree growing up the middle of it to use instead of stairs or elevators. Even children with mobility problems will know that in this fantasy world anything could happen, even climbing trees.
The setting of Formby Mackinaw’s life could be any suburb. There are a few clues that Margaret Mahy was thinking of New Zealand as she wrote. For example, there are fish and chips (page 17), Doc Martens (page 5), the mother is called Mum, they talk about Rugby (page 53) and Formby Mackinaw tells off Squidgy Moot for “grizzling” (page 62). All of these things could situate the book in England except for Elsivera Mockery offering Nina Gingernuts, which are a New Zealand brand of cookie (page 57).
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A major theme of A Villain’s Night Out is the redeeming force of art. Again there are parallels between the fantasy world and the real world. In the fantasy world Squidgy Moot stops being evil and becomes an artist. In the real world, through the art of writing his book, Formby Mackinaw achieves success and the approbation of his parents and school. The art has effects on people other than the original artist, as Aspen Twinkler is inspired by Formby’s book to read an entire book – a feat that is difficult for him. He is also inspired to create illustrations for it and give up his bullying ways (although not entirely). The relationship between Formby and his sister Minnie is strengthened by art. At the beginning Formby sees his little sister as only a pest. By the end of their adventures writing the book together they have developed a partnership. In the last few paragraphs Formby has a revelation,
“’No! Hang on!’ he cried. ‘Let’s share!’
‘I was just going to say that,’ said Minnie beaming.
So, filled with good cheer and happiness, Formby and Minnie sat down side by side in front of the computer” (page 139).
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Art and creation is not seen as trivial, after all, through his art Formby has created several people that occupy space in the real world. The villain puts it best: “’There’s nothing ‘mere’ about art,’ snarled Aspio. ‘You drew us and here we are – realer–than–real’” (page 111).
A minor theme associated with the theme of art is the theme of the interconnectedness of art and science. The Professors Mockery are an artist and a scientist living and working together to create many things including the important computer games in the story. “’Oh I do take my inspiration from science’ said Professor Mockery, ‘and science often takes its inspiration from art. It’s a great circle.’” (page 82).
Along with the theme of the power of art comes the theme of the power of story. The principal tells the whole school, “Never forget that we are all storytellers at heart” (page 132). Count Aspio knows the power of story, as he says “now I can take over everything – this story first, then all the stories on television, then the story of the world, and then the story of the whole universe. I will be the master of all stories.” (page 100). Fortunately for the world Formby has created Count Aspio, and Formby has the ultimate power because he is the creator. “Count Aspio snarled at him, but Formby typed in the file name MOOT, and Count Aspio was forced back behind the lines of near printing.” (page 96).
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The style is tight and fast paced in the exciting parts. It includes a lot of dialog that shows the personalities of the characters. For example, “’Liar! Liar! Your pants are on fire!’ yelled Minnie, scornfully. ’I bet you’re going to use that pen that writes in seven colors.’” (page 9). The story that the children is writing is poetic at times, certainly more poetic than we would expect children like Formby or Minnie to write, for example, “Two streams of glittering particles arched through the air” (page 86) or “It popped wide open, making the same sound as a cork leaping joyously from a bottle of rare champagne” (page 35). But perhaps the style fits in with the theme that the creation of art is redeeming Formby. Perhaps it is suggesting he was always a talented writer who needed an outlet for his creativity.
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Harry Horse illustrated this book with black and white line drawings at the start of each chapter. These are mostly sketches of the characters. The picture of Count Aspio on page 16 makes him look much more like a pig than I imagined him. I thought he would look more human. The illustrations can prevent the reader from seeing the characters in their own way but on the whole they enhance the text by showing some of the interesting parts of the action. Some of the illustrations are funny, such as Squidgy Moot and Professor Mockery falling on page 87 where the professor’s deadpan expression is funny. Professor Mockery is upside–down and falling straight down. He is not waving his arms for balance and he has no expression on his face except mild worry. The only way we know he is moving is the movement lines by his feet.
The cover of my copy of A Villain’s Night Out shows a boy sitting in front of a computer with a villainous looking person leaning over him. Observant children might notice that the villainous looking character doesn’t have legs and actually comes out of the wires at the back of the computer. The letters of the title have a hand written and spooky air.
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This clever and complex book can be enjoyed on many levels. The youngest readers or listeners can enjoy the action packed conflict between the good guys and villains. More sophisticated readers will be able to enjoy the puns and see the parallels between the fantasy world and the real world. Adults will enjoy the humor poked at the adults pretending they don’t watch lowbrow television programs.
Sutherland (1997 page 318) concludes about realistic books, that, “If they convince young readers that they can do something about their lives... then they are worthwhile books.” A Villain’s Night Out is not a realistic book but it can meet this criterion. A bullied or unhappy child can see that art may help them. An overshadowed younger sibling can see that sometimes sibling rivalry can be put aside to work on a mutual project. And any child can enjoy a fun and exciting read.
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Created by Jan Pye
for LIS 303 Literature and Resources for Children
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
LINKS CHECKED AND UPDATED OCTOBER 2007
SEE ALSO: Books For Military Children by Jan Pye
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