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Do we think that the Somalian pirate drama is going to dampen the enthusiasm for “fun” pirates in children’s books? Or for–oh Lord, please–National Talk Like a Pirate Day?

Elizabeth thinks not. We just talked and she opined that the pirate thing had already run its course anyway. But there was a sturdy tradition of jolly pirates in children’s books before the current craze, all more or less dependent on the assumption that pirates were far enough removed from a reading child’s reality to be practically folklore. Will the current situation, terrible but absorbing and updated in real time, put Captain Abdul (already unfortunately named) out of business?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Yeah, I’ve been wondering too. In fact, I’ve wondered for several years now about the disconnect between the romantic pirate image and the modern day criminals. Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Maybe Long John Silver’s will change to Red Nose Ruben’s, the place of the jolly clown… Oh, no — clowns can be scary.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA !!! Obviously a major source of all good will toward pirates – and a great book.

  3. Sarah O'Holla says:

    >I’ve always found pirate children’s books a bit paradoxical. I once reviewed a non-fiction “real life pirates” book for SLJ. The books were made for grades 3-6 and although they did not glorify the pirates, I couldn’t help pointing out in my review that they did not dwell on the fact that these pirates were criminals and murderers…I get the Pirates of the Caribbean-like appeal of pirate books,and ‘talk like a pirate day,’ I really do, but regardless of whether they’re Long John Silver or today’s modern pirates, there’s no getting around the fact that they were/are criminals.

  4. Andy Laties says:

    >New research suggests that the free-wheeling, anti-imperialist ethos of the 18th century Atlantic pirates was critically important in the development of American democratic ideals. (The book “Pirate Utopias” by Peter Wilson covers this territory nicely.) Atlantic pirate ships were staffed with escapees from the horrible British Navy.

    In the world of anti-globalization activists — anti-WTO protesters, for instance — these Somali pirate attacks have a completely different meaning than that construed by the mainstream media. There are a lot of people cheering these pirates on, worldwide. Of course no-one wants to see sailors killed — but given that these are some of the poorest people in the world, who the international community — West, East, Middle Eastern, African — has completely failed — living in a stateless region of the world — well — there is MEANING here that it’s important not to gloss over with the simple words “criminal”. Of course they’re criminals. Of course I wish the world was fairer, and Somalia hadn’t been a pawn in the Cold War tussle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for decades — a country pumped full of foreign weapons —

    The U.S. is complicit in the destruction of Somali society. I made friends with a Somali refugee last year in my master’s program. To hear him describe the U.S.’s role in Somalia since World War II — you would understand why Somali individuals would not perceive an American Flagged Vessel to represent “Good Guys”.

    Piracy is complicated. It’s the flipside of Capitalist Imperialism writ large. It’s a real shame that this sort of debate is absent from children’s literature, don’t ya think? Other than “The Streets Are Free” by Kurusa, published by Annick Press, there’s VERY little anti-establishment pro-power-to-the-people lit for kids. Maybe the pro-pirate books are in fact catering to this very gap in the market.

  5. Andy Laties says:

    >”From the Halls of Montezuma,
    To the shores of Tripoli” —

    Why is it that children’s literature deals so weakly and ineptly with Thomas Jefferson’s war on the “Barbary Pirates” — the early 19th century analogue to today’s Somali rash of robberies on the high seas?

    Jefferson believed the the U.S. Marines were entitled to make peace way over by Tripoli on the coast of Libya, in order to secure American shipping lanes… Everything that goes around comes around, evidently. I’m certainly interested to see what the children are taught about all this Somali stuff. Certainly they don’t learn much about the Barbary Pirates episode. I haven’t seen Barbary Pirates in any picture books, for sure.

  6. >Mermaids love pirates.

    Truthfully, any trend that’s reached it’s highest pitch and is over is ok by me. Vampires are you listening?

  7. Andy Laties says:

    >Sorry for getting all humourlessly political in yesterday’s posts. Here’s another angle on pirates. “Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor” by Mervyn Peake (recently in and then out of print via Candlewick) was written in 1939 or so. The hilarious subtext is that the pirate ship is home to a cast of homosexual men (including denizens such as Peter Poop who has a wine-cork for a nose).

    Could it be that the “Jolly Pirate” in children’s literature is yet another cipher/disguise for the Gay Man (otherwise undepictable)? If so, any real-world pirate episodes will have no impact on Jolly Pirates since they share no common subtextual references.

  8. Jim Hawkins says:

    >Remember that in Treasure Island all of the pirates are, conspicuously, idiots, murderers, and drunks. The exception, at least to the idiot part, is Long John Silver. And though Stevenson does let Silver slip away in the end — and lets us enjoy the fact, even — he never lets us forget that Silver’s a criminal and a murderer, too:

    A gentle slope ran up from the beach to the entrance of the cave. At the top, the squire met us. To me he was cordial and kind, saying nothing of my escapade either in the way of blame or praise. At Silver’s polite salute he somewhat flushed.
    “John Silver,” he said, “you’re a prodigious villain and imposter — a monstrous imposter, sir. I am told I am not to prosecute you. Well, then, I will not. But the dead men, sir, hang about your neck like mill-stones.”
    “Thank you kindly, sir,” replied Long John, again saluting.

    Is Silver the first truly amoral hero/antihero in children’s lit?

  9. Andy Laties says:

    >My Facebook account page is now filled with my friends patriotically posting links to articles about the Navy successfully shooting three Somali pirates and liberating the kidnapped American captain. All my friends are high-fiving each other online, and expressing pride in the Navy and in President Obama, etc.

    I do not doubt the bravery of all concerned, and I’m glad the American captain is safe. But this insulting posture regarding these Somali pirates is just hypocritical. I thought Americans celebrated outrageous bravery in pursuit of the big score! Watch our movies! Watch our TV shows! These Somali pirates apparently have been trying not to kill their hostages, over the past couple of years of piracy, and they have made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms. Are you telling me that none of them have encountered American dramatic scripts ENCOURAGING this kind of behavior?? Americans LOVE this sort of criminality!

    My friends will undoubtedly be happily reading children’s books to their kids tonight that celebrate rebelliousness and rule-breaking and derring-do (Robin Hood anyone?) in the face of unjust authority. (How about the people in one of the poorest countries on earth brazenly stealing money from people in the richest country on earth? Sounds like the plot of a popular book to me.)

    Robert Louis Stevenson was definitely right on the cutting edge, yes. He was a Scot — and the British were the bosses of Scotland. Such a man surely was anti-authoritarian.

    I love to remind customers that this man wrote “A Child’s Garden Of Verses” AS WELL AS “Doctor Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” AS WELL AS “Treasure Island” AS WELL AS “Kidnapped.” The guy had astonishing range (he was Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite writer)

    In contemporary American media culture, if it bleeds it leads. We want stories about ANYONE dying in a big fancy way. We want deadly drama. We are collectively fixated on death as morbidly negative and bad.

    But Stevenson could write about John Silver the way he did because there’s no morbid fixation there. Bravery might entail death. If you’re out there on the sea, without any master to answer to — you were daring, and that’s one of those old-time Pagan Virtues. The Roman way of thinking. (Isaiah Berlin talks about the Pagan Virtues brilliantly in “The Crooked Timber of Humanity.” Caesar and Machiavelli were on the same page here.)

    Silver was out there, on the edge, and Stevenson approved simply because the character Silver didn’t require approval of anyone (least of all his own creator).

    Here’s Stevenson’s famous poem about death — a stanza of this was put on his gravestone (in Samoa — he was 49 when he died there of TB):

    Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

    This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

    I think the pirate is an iconic figure in children’s literature because he cannot be gotten rid of.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >I can’t help myself. I’m taking the bait!

    The pirates aren’t not killing their hostages out of chivalry. Dead hostages mean there’s nothing to prevent military action against them. The guys are trying to walk the line of stealing as much as they can while not provoking anyone to bring down the hammer. They’re not sticking it to the Man. In this case, they were doing it by commandeering a ship that was transporting relief supplies to Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya. They’re desperate men, in a desperate situation, doing desperate (and, yes, criminal) things. To construct a political message against unjust authority and hypocrisy out of that is wish fulfillment, no matter how bad most American movies are.

  11. Andy Laties says:

    >Arrrgghh taking the BAIT arrrr you?? Maybe I better wait until I get really piled on by this group before I pull out my heavy weapons (get ready for a lot of appalling references to post-modernist theory….you may wish to spit that hook out of your mouth before I really get going…)

    (I do recommend the Isaiah Berlin though, as background reading. Today is a big day for Pagans versus Christians, after all!)

  12. Anonymous says:

    >Academic shibboleths, coming astern! I feel nineteen again.

  13. Anonymous says:

    >Americans sure do love the bad news. Why monsters prevail as a trend. I think it comes from a cynical focus that I remember starting after the JFK assassination.

    Pirates on the poop deck sure beats the so called heros of this business who talk about poop and pissing in their books and in their book presentations. It caters to the lowest common denominator as egos go more out of control and hunger for power grows.

    Facebook is a being datamined for all your info, any progressive would be wise to get off it and leave that world of sycophants behind.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >I once overheard a funny negotiation between a mother and her four-year-old son who wanted a book about pirates.

    Mom: Choose something else. I don’t want you to read about pirates.

    Kid: Why?

    Mom: Because there’s too much fighting and stealing in those pirate books.

    Kid: But that’s what pirates DO!

    To the mom’s credit, she was persuaded by her son’s logic and let him get the pirate book.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >Pirates are like dinosaurs. If an Allosaurus emerged from the lake in Prospect Park and started eating strollers like bon bons, sales of How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight would PLUMMET.

  16. marypearson says:

    >On a similar note, I’ve been wondering how the recent chimp attack in the news would affect Curious George sales. The cute and cuddly factor is definitely tarnished.

  17. *tresdivine* says:

    >i love this book so much!!! it’s the most awesome kids against pirates book ever. i like this better than treasure island actually 🙂

    ps: chimp attacks are so in right now. LOL

  18. Tom the teach says:

    >I started writing a year ago about a fisherman named Percy. The story was for my four year old grandson.
    Natural progression led to his arch enemies being written about and they are three pirates. Of course more recently, I have had to ask myself is this ok? My answer is yes. My pirates are ruthless and nasty and not a nice sort, but hey they’re ficticious and stupid, they always get caught. (Like in the movies, baddies always getting caught.) Take a look at
    or key percy the fisherman on youtube.

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