Pirate fever hit our house hard in late 2012. Seemingly overnight, my kid became obsessed with Jolly Roger coloring pages and drew new “treasure maps” daily. C-Man and I always thought of us as a ninja family in the ninjas v. pirates smackdown, so this was somewhat awkward. However, our son is our son, and we love him no matter what.
We even went to the library for books about pirates! But if I have to read it a dozen times out loud to someone, I’d prefer a book I can actually like. And all this yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, plus a bunch of unwashed scruffy guys with peg legs and parrots, were NOT cutting it for me.
SO, I kept digging and kept digging, and finally turned up a good number of pirate books with a twist, good writing, and art that you can enjoy even without a high seas obsession. I didn’t set out to make the list girl-heavy, but to be honest, most of the traditional all-guy pirate books I’ve found were pretty formulaic. If you have any suggestions for some diversity which this list is sadly lacking, please let me know in the comments!
Don’t Mention Pirates, written and illustrated by Sarah McConnell, is satisfyingly silly. Start with a little girl who knows her true calling, then add a grandfather whose gold tooth is a little loose and a few shovels… and the Silver family will never be the same!
Papa is a Pirate! Really, he is! Or is he? Author and illustrator Katharina Grossmann Hensel’s wit is not to be missed, starting with the front cover itself. Boy Detective found a new silly detail or joke in the interior illustrations every dang time we read this one, which was at least 15 times. Gals like me will also appreciate the story of how Papa met Mama.
Cornelia Funke’s Pirate Girl confused me at first. I expected Molly, kidnapped by pirates, to stage some kind of escape, or at least sabotage the pirates’ dinner! Instead she’s simply unfazed by her captivity, and completely confident that it’s all going to be just fine… because she knows something the pirates don’t! The kind of book you appreciate so much at the end, you need to then re-read it once you’re in on the joke. Well done!
PIRATES AND DINOSAURS! It’s like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of books! Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andreae, and illustrated by Russell Ayto, was so popular at our house that one of Boy Detective’s school teachers asked to borrow it. Truth be told, I was laughing as much as the kids. Well of course Captain Stubble is crying because dinosaurs stole his pirate ship! And of course Flinn and his school friends, who find the Captain in the back of their classroom’s supply closet, are the only ones who can help! What doesn’t make sense about that? The art is kid-like to represent Flinn’s imagination, without being messy and incoherent. Go for it, you won’t be sorry! We haven’t read any of the sequels yet, so if you have, let me know if they’re as strong.
Author Peter Harris and illustrator Deborah Allwright created Night Pirates, the calm, cool counterpart to the rumpus-type books above. Young Tom wakes up one night to find that a band of girl pirates are stealing the front of his house… what the heck? The dreamy feel of the art and writing makes this a perfect bedtime story, and the “kids get one over on grownups” adventure is satisfying even when you’re the grownup.
In Phoebe Gilman’s Grandma and the Pirates, passing pirates who smell Grandma’s delicious noodle casserole decide that Grandma and her pet parrot Oliver are coming with them! Granddaughter Melissa isn’t going to let that happen without a fight, though, so she goes along and immediately starts planning their escape. This illustration style is not my favorite, as it’s very intricate and traditional, but Melissa’s ingenuity and the satisfying ending more than make up for it. Also I like how Grandma brandishes her rolling pin on the cover.
Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime by Myra Wolfe, with art by Maria Monescillo. Charlotte Jane, like her parents, is a pirate through and through. And she’s not happy with this whole “bedtime” idea, so she decides she just won’t. After all, it keeps her from doing all the fun stuff! But will the fun stuff be as fun without any sleep? Monescillo’s art is so rich, I loved looking at it.
Backbeard, Pirate for Hire by Matthew McElligott. Backbeard (not Blackbeard) is a pirate. He and his crew wear bright colors, and he has a pig on his shoulder instead of a parrot. Unfortunately, NONE of these things are okay with the Pirate Council. (Did you know there was a Pirate Council?) So it’s off to look for a regular job, which is hard when you’re the hairiest, smelliest, dirtiest pirate who ever lived. Oh hey, the tea shop is hiring, that should work out, right? I’m not a big fan of dirty, hairy, smelly pirate stories, but this one was funny enough to win me over. Plus, one member of Backbeard’s crew is a woman, and one is a person of color, which for children’s books about pirates is like an explosion of diversity. (Which is very sad. What’s with that?)
Backbeard the the Birthday Suit comes before it, but we read it second, and that turned out just fine.
Pirate Vs. Pirate: The Terrific Tale of a Big, Blustery Maritime Match by Mary Quattlebaum, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Bad Bart and Mean Mo face off to decide who is the best pirate in the world… only to discover that they have an awful lot in common. Their contest and its eventual resolution is pitch-perfect. Mean Mo is officially my favorite female pirate, and I really appreciate how Boiger and Quattlebaum present her as a woman who is not petite and conventionally pretty.
Small Saul by Ashley Spires. Saul is determined to be a pirate, though he barely passes pirate school. The crew he joins is in for a shock, as Saul immediately sets about redecorating and cooking. Can this atypical pirate find a home on the high seas? Caution: there’s a little bit of yucky stuff, mostly because pirates are kind of unwashed. And like almost all children’s picture books about pirates, there’s just one token person of color in the pirate crew. SAD. But Saul himself is a charmer and this is a good book about being different that doesn’t smack you upside the head with its message. And I totally approve of his tattoo.
But! by Tim Hamilton. Truth be told, I thought I was going to hate the art. But this is SO well-written, and the people of Halibut Bay “where hats were hard to come by and people had cold heads” won me over. Eddie, the hero of our tale, has to throw a birthday party for a pirate because his Aunt Sue tripped on some yarn and broke her leg. Cake and balloons are covered, but what birthday gift can he get for a pirate with zero notice? Hamilton provides a happy ending with an extra laugh, and my kiddo at age 7 was delighted with this.
And that’s the list of our favorite children’s books about pirates! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!