Aargh! Pirates!

When I taught Treasure Island to college students in the 1990’s, my class wouldn’t believe it was appropriate for children. For one thing, it was “too hard”, even for themselves, let alone children. They said it was too long, had too many characters, used vocabulary about ships and sailing that they didn’t understand, and was too violent. Some said it was boring. This all made me sad because I thought Treasure Island was a riot. It is true that the book was published in the 1880’s, and was very British, and did use a lot of sailing terms, and had a somewhat complicated plot and narrative structure, but…but…pirates! the black spot! mutineers overheard while hiding in an apple barrel!! Generations have read it with relish. Perhaps I had lucked into a particularly non-literary class, though the experience made me drop the book (and The Yearling) from my syllabus.
In any case, it is a different time. And children still love pirates. (Adults too, on Halloween and Speak Like a Pirate Day). In the bookstore, we have a picture book section devoted to pirates, because people show up specifically asking for them. And pirates continue to show up in books for other ages as well.
My true age, in kid-years, is 9 to 12, but I did discover and really like a YA book called Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley. I don’t want to give anything away but if you think you would like a story that reads at first as realism and then segues into something quite fantastical, that involves a teenage girl with lungs full of feathers, romance, mortal situations, parallel worlds and…pirates, you might want to give it a try. It’s pretty exciting and I found it moving as well. A sequel, Aerie, has just been released.
In my age group, I have just read two very new books which I am enthusiastic about. Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager is kind of like a steam punk version of Treasure Island with a girl as the protagonist. Whereas Stevenson purposely kept women and girls out of Treasure Island, here we have a girl who is an inventor and hero (her parents are killed off early in a mini-sub she had built herself), and her complex aunt. The girl is kidnapped by a pirate, who, like Long John Silver, is an unpredictable mixture of evil and vulnerability, because of her invention of a gizmo that can function underwater like gills. Twists and turns happen, of course, and I had a lovely ride, from stormy beginning to semi-surprising end.
I also just finished a book that I was sure I would dislike. I was turned off by its cartoon-y cover and by its opening pages and illustrations. Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo by Stephen Bramucci took me by surprise, though. It opens as a first person narrative by an egotistical boy who wears a fake mustache and is full of bravado. His adventurer parents have gone missing in Borneo and the boy, his pet cobra, a girl he knows from fencing class, and the butler go in search of them. They pursue pirates and have all sorts of somewhat grotesque and occasionally scatological adventures. Kirkus gave it a bad review and I understand its points, but if I had to go toe to toe with its reviewer to defend it, I think I could. What pulled the story, for me, from the gutter of guano jokes and over-the-top exaggerations, was the modifying effect of the butler’s narrative. Each chapter narrated by the boy was followed by a page of “corrections” written by the butler, adding humor and humility at the same time. The book made me laugh in spite of myself. Though Kirkus calls the characters “flat”, I was actually touched by the evolutions of character that I saw—I even felt a little teary. So, for those who like broad comic adventure with their pirates, and some playful narrative self-consciousness, infused with some real human qualities, Bramucci’s book is worth a go.
What is the appeal of pirates? Ah, that is a dissertation for another day. Aargh!