Contrary to what he claims in his book-jacket biography, Aaron Blabey, author of the hugely popular new series The Bad Guys, was not really a “terrible actor,” or a bad artist. He was just not totally amazing at those pursuits, like he is at writing and drawing irreverent, uproariously funny characters that challenge our ideas about what a “bad guy” (or a pug, or a unicorn) is.
“The joy of creating this narrative for me is being able to touch on themes that don’t often appear in work for this age group. Mr. Snake, for example, has a satisfyingly long developmental arc throughout the series as he battles with ‘trying to be good’ in a world where he’s always been treated badly for simply being born a snake,” he says.
Blabey’s fame as an author is quite recent. The Australian native broke out in 2015 with his first Pig the Pug book, starring a pushy, ridiculously chunky pug that must learn to control his selfish, mercenary behavior. His other books have starred other hapless, nasty, or sad-sack characters such as Thelma the Unicorn, The Dreadful Fluff, and Stanley Paste.
Like his Bad Guys character Mr. Snake, Blabey may have flailed a bit before he found his place in the world. But, he says, “I would not change one thing about my weird journey, because every bit of it was vital to making me who I am.”
Q | What inspired your new series, The Bad Guys?
A | It was sparked when I saw my 6-year-old’s interest in books being stamped out by unforgivably boring Early Readers. It got me thinking—there’s got to be a way to make this process way more fun. At the time, Mr. Six and his 8-year-old brother were big fans of “scary” animals, and, coincidentally, I’d been toying with writing something about characters that were tired of being judged by their appearance. Then, one evening, as my son and I sat on the sofa boggle-eyed with despair at a particularly grueling book from school, Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark, and Mr. Piranha just burst out of my head. It was like a mutiny.
Q | What are some other kids’ series you’ve been inspired by?
A | It might sound odd, but I’ve studiously avoided reading other series for this age group, and have instead drawn from my own peculiar set of influences. That said, my lifelong love of funny adventure narratives underpins every move I make. The joy of making the series is that I get to take all the adventure stories I’ve ever loved and stir them into the mixture to see what it becomes. The Bad Guys is an indecent amount of fun to make.
Q | Can you talk more about creating unlikely heroes like those found in The Bad Guys?
A | The joy of creating this narrative is being able to touch on themes and concepts that don’t often appear in work for this age group. This extends to character development, too. The characters don’t just reboot at the beginning of each episode. They grow and change. And provided it’s all bedded on good laughs and rip-roaring action sequences, the deeper layers can exist happily without spoiling the fun.
Q | Humor aside, do you have a message to kids about continuing to push until they figure out what they’re really good at?
A | I spent decades feeling like I’d missed the bus. Yet something deep down inside wouldn’t let me give up. I tried to quit it a couple of times, but I felt so heartbroken I realized I had no real option—I had to keep following the muse. It probably sounds juvenile, but this always makes me think of Indiana Jones. He’s still my hero after all these years, because no matter how many times he gets flattened, he gets back up. And he never loses his hat.
Q | Is there one of your books that is a favorite of yours that hasn’t received as much attention?
A | I’ve written 27 books. They’re all special to me. Every single time, I’ve been like, “Oh, I think I’m onto something this time….” My first seven books came out, got some kind reviews, won a couple of awards, and then vanished from sight. Every time, it was just indescribably sad. And then after nine years, my eighth book, Pig the Pug, just went ka-BOOM! It was instantly popular and was part of a dizzying purple patch during which my work, including The Bad Guys, Thelma the Unicorn, and a few other titles, found a large, receptive audience. I’m beyond grateful for that, and I always will be.
Q | Can you talk about some of your school visits?
A | It’s funny you should bring that up. I think the reason my early books didn’t connect with an audience the way my more recent work has is because they were written before I had the experience of visiting 218 different schools. I turned up 218 different times at 218 locations and set up my on-screen presentation in 218 school halls and performed my work for nearly 100,000 kids over a six-year period, and it has permanently altered the way I approach my work. I occasionally get asked for advice on writing for kids, and I generally don’t know what to say, as I’m suspicious of “experts” doling out wisdom. However, I have a hand-written sign on my desk that is the result of visiting all those schools. It reads: DON’T BE BORING. That is the advice I give myself every morning as I get to work. That is the key lesson I’ve learned, in 218 instructive installments, and I’ll take it with me to the grave.
Q | Graphic novels, especially funny ones, can help reluctant readers begin to enjoy books. Have you gotten this feedback?
A | The thing I’m proudest of in my life is the onslaught of correspondence I receive from parents and teachers telling me that they have kids who have always loathed reading and are not only devouring The Bad Guys but pestering them for the due date of the next installment. Kids who struggle with reading are connecting with it in a way that is thrilling, and even into early high school they don’t mind being seen with a copy of The Bad Guys because it radiates something vaguely naughty. A couple of weeks ago, I got nine e-mails from the USA in one morning. They came from all over the country from various parents saying the same thing: “My kid hates reading, but [he’s] reading The Bad Guys!” That kind of blew my mind.
Q | What can teachers do to encourage kids to pick up a book?
A | I’m not a teacher, so I wouldn’t presume to tell teachers how to do their jobs. That said, my belief is that if you can get kids to associate books with fun, they’ll be okay. It’s all about making it fun. Any way you can.
Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Blabey