Review of the Day – Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World by Jane Yolen
Do you remember that whole Girl Power craze roundabout ten or so years ago? It was the oddest thing. Girls were supposed to seek empowerment in an era of Spice Girls and Ally McBeal on the one hand while appreciating Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the other. The term "Girl Power" has long since faded, but the quest continues to find books for our future female leaders that contain ladies with pizzazz. Now the publishing industry is more than willing to churn out a million pretty pink princess books on the one hand and biographies of people like Harriet Tubman and Jane Goodall on the other. That’s all well and good, but you know what the problems with these books are? They’re all about the GOOD girls. The ones who took on the bad guys and kicked some serious tuchis (metaphorically, usually). I’m all for strong female characters that are pure as newly driven snow, but what about all the bad girls? Is there something to be gained from reading a book about ladies who killed, robbed, and broke the law with impunity? I think so. If boys get their fare share of true life pirate titles, it should be no different for the fairer sex. So gals, if you want to go out and lead a crew of rough and tumble men across the seven seas to fame and infamy, take a gander at Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World, and see how it’s done. Just bear in mind that aside from all the moral implications, nine times out of ten you’ll reach a nasty, sticky end.
Thirteen female pirates of varying infamy, villainy, and tenacity are presented in Jane Yolen’s chronological listing of various deeds and misdeeds. After clearing up some piratical misconceptions and truths about the women who worked in that particular field (ballads, clothing, vocabulary, etc.) we launch into Artemisia Admiral-Queen (Persia: 500-480 B.C.) and it’s smooth sailing from there on in (so to speak). Each section considers the rumors and legends of the pirate women, considering the truth and the things we can never know for sure. Illustrator Christine Joy Pratt fills the book with scratchboard illustrations that resemble woodcuts. The book actually clocks in at a mere 103 pages, and with its large font and copious pictures, sidebars, and notes of text it’s actually ideal for kids reading early chapter books who aren’t quite ready for 400 page non-fiction titles. A roundup of other female pirates, a five page Bibliography (including websites), and an Index finish up the book.
Jane Yolen is no stranger to the world of female piracy. From her 1963 Pirates in Petticoats to her 1995 picture book The Ballad of the Pirate Queens (both books about Ann Bonney and Mary Reade) to Commander Toad and the Space Pirates . . . wait . . . maybe scratch that last one. In any case she’s clearly tread this ground before. What she hasn’t done before is research some of the other cutlass bearing lasses out there. Plus I appreciated that at the beginning of this book Ms. Yolen took time to tell us where these "facts" came from. As she points out, few pirates wrote about their own adventures. "But there are trial documents, logbooks of navy captains, and depositions from captured pirates and their victims," which, such as they are, are as close to fact as we’re going to get here. With its continual efforts to separate truth from fiction, the fear with this kind of book would be that you’d have a herky-jerky narrative that keeps you guessing. You might worry that the end result would leave you not knowing what, if anything, to believe. Fortunately Yolen has, in a sense, simplified these stories enough that rumors and facts go hand in hand. For example, the section on Charlotte de Berry of England contains a sidebar called "Truth or Fiction?" that draws attention to the fact that not only is this pirate potentially fictional, but may well have begun life as a penny dreadful. The proper text is filled with references to "Another version of the story" and what "supposedly" happened in her life. Kids will have no difficulty distinguishing out the real from the fun stories. The trick is that Yolen trusts them to understand the difference.
The real trouble with sticking to the facts is that you can’t go about making stuff up. Looking at it, that is probably one of the more obvious statements I’ve ever written. But it’s true! I mean, I sure do wish there were more women pirates in this book, but facts and the lack thereof make that just bit impossible. Yolen has actually created a Roundup of other women pirates "about whom little is known" which sates my curiosity to some extent. These include everyone from Gunpowder Gertie, the Pirate Queen of the Kootenays to Rusla the Norwegian princess. So while I would have liked to have seen a couple more ethnically diverse women pirates in this book, doggone reality keeps getting in my way.
When Charlesbridge thought about bringing an illustrator into this project I wonder if art that could look like woodcuts was a given right off the bat. The pictures featured in scratchboard format here seem a well suited fit to a swashbuckling work of non-fiction such as this. As for illustrator Christine Joy Pratt, she has several books under her belt but is still a relative newcomer to the world of children’s books. Some of her best work has been on such kid-friendly periodicals as Cricket Magazine and Spider Magazine. There are some sections that are a little random, of course. For example, a bit on Illyrian Boats contains a picture of a very odd boat made up primarily of what look to be peculiar triangles and spares. I’m not quite sure what’s going on in that picture. But while the illustrations in this title don’t have the realism of, say, Dan Burr’s work on the book Pirates, in this context and within this format they are nine times out of ten an ideal match.
Jane Yolen makes admirable work of immoral women. I don’t know how your female pirate section of the library is looking these days, but mine’s a tad skimpy. Backing up her sources all the way, Ms. Yolen’s words coupled with Ms. Pratt’s pretty pics render this a very readable, visually informative and fun piece of informational… uh… info. If you’ve a gal or two (or even a guy for that matter) prone to thwacking seafarers (read: siblings) with swords of their own making, perhaps a bit of female piratical knowledge is just what the doctor ordered. A glimpse into a world that will have you wanting more. Arrrrr!
On shelves now.
Christine Joy Pratt is a resident of Hawaii, I see. That brings my count of authors/illustrators who live in Hawaii up to two (Bruce Hale does too, yes?). I’m sure that there are more, but I can only think of two off the top of my head. Feel free to enlighten me.
And for the record, I think I should be given at least fifty points for abstaining from referring to the title of this book (sans subtitle) without saying something along the lines of, “No, this is not yet another book about the Mermaid Parade.” Of course, I’ve just lost the points I might have gained by saying it here, but COME ON. I’m only human. How on earth could I resist?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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