The Pirate Mums: Making a more inclusive world through picture books
Published on: 02 June 2021 Author: Jodie Lancet-Grant
Author Jodie Lancet-Grant shares the inspiration for The Pirate Mums, her debut picture book with illustrator Lydia Corry - and why it's so vital that children see a diverse and equal world in the books they read.
"Where is their daddy?"
It was a glorious spring day, and the daughter of two of my oldest friends, a couple who live on the far side of the country and were visiting, was munching on an apple in our garden. My friends’ daughter was 6 at the time, two years older than our twins, and I saw her look at my wife, at me, at our kids and then back at us. Confusion clouded her face and she blurted out ‘But why do Delilah and Alexa have two mummies? Where is their daddy?’ Cue much embarrassment from all parties. It wasn’t the first time we’d met, but we hadn’t seen each other in a while. We were the only family she had ever come across – in real life, on TV or in books - that differed from the traditional heteronormative, one mum/one dad set up.
I realised then that the book idea I kept coming back to, the one with a story that reflected my daughters’ same sex parent family, was important to write not only for children like mine, but for any family who wants to show their kids a more inclusive representation of the world.
And, as my daughters grew and started school, I could immediately see how useful a book like this would be for teachers, wanting to teach equality and acceptance alongside phonics and how to tell the time.
That idea turned into The Pirate Mums, published by Oxford University Press and illustrated by Kate Greenaway Medal nominee Lydia Corry.
Our differences make us special
It’s about a little boy called Billy, who wishes his family would be a bit more like other people’s. The adult reader – especially when looking at the gorgeous family portraits Lydia has created on the opening pages – is likely to think this is because Billy has two mums. But as the story unfolds we see it is in fact because those mums are pirates. They wear outlandish pirate clothes, they sing sea shanties when Billy’s friends come round for playdates and their taste in house design is rather… fishy.
When they volunteer to accompany Billy’s class on a school trip to the seaside, with a boat trip included (Billy’s mums love boats), he makes them promise to try and be normal – just for the day. But when the boat gets into trouble it’s Billy’s mums’ nautical knowledge that saves the day and he starts to see that it’s the things about his parents that are different that make them – and himself – special. The Pirate Mums is a rollicking adventure, featuring a rude, loudmouthed parrot, a makeshift sail made of children’s coats, a glorious rainbow cannon and just a touch of toilet humour.
Books that specifically say that ‘families come in different shapes and sizes’ are hugely important. Todd Parr’s vibrant, bouncy The Family Book and the Donor Conception Network’s warm, straightforward My Story both spring to mind, and are enduring favourites in our house.
My aim is to write books that introduce the idea of non-traditional family set ups in a more incidental way, that doesn’t immediately mark those families out as ‘other’, books that will be enjoyed for their story as much as the lesson it contains.
Making the uniqueness that causes Billy’s embarrassment something somewhat fantastical – pirates living on land and in your suburban street – will, I hope, help the story chime with children who feel different in any way at all. Perhaps their family speak a different language at home, or eat meals that don’t look or taste like the ones served at friends’ tables. Maybe they live in a flat when their classmates are in houses. There are a hundred ways we can feel apart from our peers as we grow and work out who we are.
We've come a long way... but there's further to go
I’m particularly hopeful that the book is taken to heart by teachers. The wonderful L. D. Lapinski wrote recently about growing up under the unseen shadow of Section 28, where teachers were forbidden from even mentioning anything LGBTQ+. That was my experience, too, and I find it utterly astonishing that until the year 2000 it would not have been legal for educational establishments to feature a family like mine in any sort of literature.
Clearly, as a society we have come a long way in the last twenty years (although, judging from the dangerous resurgence in harmful transphobia we still have some way to go.) Moving from a situation where it was not allowed to even acknowledge LGBTQ+ life to one where it is celebrated takes time.
There isn’t yet a huge array of great resources that children will enjoy to help teachers counteract centuries of homophobia.
The Pirate Mums will hopefully go some way to addressing that.
For children to really fall in love with books, stories and reading, it’s imperative that they see themselves reflected on the page. It has been at once wonderful and, at times, upsetting, to see how much my girls treasure the classic Mommy, Mama and Me, how they love to scour Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant Queen Munch and Queen Nibble, searching for the clues that the two queens fall in love, rather than become best friends, and point out the male couple out for a romantic meal in the background of a page of Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet’s hilarious Snowball. It’s wonderful because they light up when they see something that looks like their family in a book that they love; and upsetting because of how rare it still is.
Happily, publishers are now starting to address this, and I am very pleased to recommend the following LGBTQ+-friendly picture books.
Wrestle! by Charlotte Mars, Maya Newell and Gus Skattebol-James
Prince Henry by Olly Pike
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