Jane Yolen,
illustrated by David Shannon,
The Ballad of the Pirate Queens
(Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995)

A pirate has always been an incredible hook to the imagination. From the historical brutalities of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach to the fantastical plottings of Captain Hook, the lawless plunderers of the seas have long been an exciting subject.

Noted fantasy and children's writer Jane Yolen tackles the subject with a feminist twist in The Ballad of the Pirate Queens. Ostensibly for children, this thin, illustrated volume is a treat for anyone with a bit of buccaneer spirit.

The protagonists of this brief epic are Anne Bonney and Mary Reade, two of history's most infamous lady pirates. The two women dressed as men and sailed with Captain "Calico Jack" Rackham on the sloop Vanity.

But their careers as pirates was brief. One night, as Rackham and his men drank and gambled below decks, Bonney and Reade alone tried to fend off the crew of the man-o'-war Albion -- to no avail. All were captured and brought to shore to face trial.

Fate smiled on the women, however. While Rackham and his men were hanged for their crimes, Bonney and Reade -- or so the story goes -- won their freedom by "pleading their bellies," claiming to be pregnant. Unwilling to kill innocent babies along with their mothers, the women were set free. And so they lived happily ever after.

OK, so this isn't a historical text. If you want to know more of the facts and legends of their lives, their are ample resources out there on the subject. No, Yolen has created a ballad, the sort of heroic tale that might be told around a cooking fire or sung in a pub. In keeping with that style, Yolen has composed the story in lyrical rhyme, with an infectious rhythm that seems to demand chanting, if not outright singing.

Her ballad is complemented by the artwork of David Shannon, whose colorful paintings capture perfectly the feel of the salt air and sea. The wind seems to blow off the pages, and there's a faint sound of waves in the background as you read. The flames of the doomed ship Vanity nearly convinced me to douse my book in water.

The Ballad of the Pirate Queens is perfect for anyone, young or old, with a taste for old tales and colorful personalities of the sea. For children who love a bit of adventure with their bed-time reading, it would be hard to find a more suitable selection. Yolen has racked up another winner.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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