Running away with pirates in our imaginations

Published on: 24 Hydref 2013 Author: Lyn Gardner

The Ghastly McNastysYo-ho-ho! Author Lyn Gardner talks pirates in children's literature - from Treasure Island, via Swallows and Amazons, through to her new book, The Ghastly McNastys.



In real life there is nothing romantic or glamorous about pirates. As anyone who reads the newspapers, or who has seen the new nail-biting Tom Hanks' movie Captain Phillips will know, the modern day pirate is scary and murderous, and you definitely wouldn't want to meet one.

But in children's literature pirates represent something less distressing and far more quixotic: however bad the pirates may be they also promise the freedom and lure of the open sea and other worlds and possibilities.

Pirate stories take us beyond the everyday and everyday rules. But there is often an ambiguity surrounding pirates: we are fascinated by them and yet we fear them. We want to run away with them, but we want to be back safe in time for tea too.

There is perhaps a connection between the increased interest in pirate stories of all kinds and the fact that so many of our children lead lives where opportunities to play together, outside and beyond the parental eye are increasingly diminished.

The landscape of a 21st century childhood and 21st century play is a world away from Arthur Ransome's glorious story (included on Booktrust's recent list of the 100 Best Books for children) in which the Swallows take on the piractical Amazons, and dad observes of his children that they jolly well should be allowed to sail alone across a Cumbrian lake on the grounds that they are 'better drowned, than duffers' Maybe the more we fear for our children and take steps to confine them in the mistaken belief that we are keeping them safe, the more they long to run away with the pirates in their imaginations.

Two of the most enduring stories of children's literature - Treasure Island and Peter Pan - also feature two of literature's most famous pirates: Long John Silver and Captain Hook. Both of these portrayals of fascinating and distorted father figures are leavened with humour, and in both cases it is brave, quick-witted children who defeat them and restore order from the potential moral chaos and personal catastrophe that the pirates represent.

The Ghastly McNastys, which I've written with the illustrator, Ros Asquith, may offer a highly comic take on the pirate tradition, but it has all the classic elements of pirate stories: adventure, lost treasure, danger and two children—Tat and Hetty—who must use both courage and their brains to defeat the pirate twins, Captain Gruesome and Captain Grisly. The twins are so mean and nasty that even their imaginary friends refuse to play with them and will only play with each other. Their monstrousness is cut with humour.

Like Captain Hook, there is a touch of the overgrown baby about them; but like Long John Silver they represent a genuine threat, particularly to the children and to the island community where they live. The arrival of the McNastys puts Tat's family in real danger. To save them he and Hetty must undergo a journey that I hope is-- in its own small, highly comic and absurdist fashion- as significant for this primary school hero and heroine and the story's young readers as Jim Hawkins' teenage coming of age story is for him and all of Robert Louis Stevenson's fans.

Topics: Blog

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