Monday, May 05, 2008

Nonfiction Monday - Sea Queens

Before we begin, let's play a bit of word association. What comes to mind when you hear the word pirate? When I was younger the response probably would have been Errol Flynn or the Dread Pirate Roberts. For today's movie-goers it's probably Johnny Depp. But move beyond the movie swashbuckling for a moment and think about pirating as a profession. Now what comes to mind? Thieves? Murderers? Skull and crossbones? Black eye patch? Wooden leg? Dirty? Dastardly? Yes, I know, stereotypical all. During this little experiment in word association did the word woman come to mind--not in the damsel-in-distress connotation, but as the PIRATE?

Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Christine Joy Pratt, is a thoroughly engrossing book about women in history who joined the ranks of pirate. The first chapter, entitled Sea Queens, begins this way.

A pirate is a robber who roams the oceans of the world. He thieves and pillages and murders. Above his ship flies the skull-and-crossbones flag.

The pirate is a low-class dirty dog, a dirty down-and-outer with few teeth and a black patch on his eye. His is as often dead drunk as sober.

But wait--not all of that is true.

Some pirates did their thieving on rivers.

Some pirates, called privateers, robbed only enemies of their country. They sailed under a letter of marque--permission from their king or queen.
And not all pirates were men.

Not all pirates were men?

Yes, some of the greatest pirates ever known were women.

This introduction goes on to describe the "basics" of the pirate world, from flags to vocabulary, the pirate code, treasure and more.

What follows are 12 biographies of women pirates through history, beginning with Artemisia, Admiral-Queen from Persia (500-480 BC) and ending with Madame Ching from China (early nineteenth century). Accompanied by illustrations done in pen and ink on scratchboard, the biographies attempt to separate fact from fiction while providing as much solid information about the pirates as possible. The narratives are engaging and fun to read. They are accompanied by highlight boxes that provide a bit of context for the time and place, as well as interesting tidbits learned while researching the pirate. For example, the chapter on Anne Bonney and Mary Read, two pirates in the American colonies in the early eighteenth century, includes boxes on Piracy in the Carolinas, Anne's Poem (a poem said to have been written by Anne Bonney), How Anne's Story Was Told, How American Pirates Attacked, Women as Soldiers, Who Was Wood Rogers?, Who Knew They Were Women? and Captain Barnet's Attack. The biographies vary in length, with some extending only three pages, and others well beyond ten.

The book concludes with a chapter entitled Roundup, which includes a list of other women pirates about whom only a little is known. The chapter states:

Most pirates--men or women--have remained unknown to history unless captured and hanged or pardoned. Also the earlier accounts have been so compromised by folklore and legend, there are often few facts to back up the stories we do have.

This is a well researched book, as evidenced by the extensive bibliography of books and web sites. In fact, Jane Yolen includes a bibliographic note that says:

When I wrote an earlier book on women pirates, there was little easily obtained information about them. I didn't know then about Grania O'Malley, or Artemisia, or Teuta. In the over forty years since publication of that book, Pirates in Petticoats, scholars have done much work on the subject of women pirates. This book uses a lot of that new material.

If it's any indication of how much I enjoyed this book, you should know that day it arrived I sat on the couch in my office (okay, reclined!) and read it from cover to cover. It is a fascinating, well-written text that is thoroughly engaging. This may actually be one of my favorite nonfiction reads of the year to date. I highly recommend it.

Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World
Jane Yolen
Christine Joy Pratt
Charlesbridge Publishing
Publication Date:
July 2008
104 pages
Source of Book: Review copy received from Raab Associates.

This post was written for Nonfiction Monday. Head on over to Anastasia Suen’s blog and check out all the great posts highlighting nonfiction this week.


  1. Tricia,

    With a group of several other educators, I helped develop some activities and a list of resources for a pirate museum years ago. I learned a lot about pirates from my research. I had never known that there were so many different types of pirates--including buccaneers, corsairs, privateers.

    Jane Yolen wrote a book about Mary Read and Anne Bonney some time ago. I think it was called THE BALLAD OF THE PIRATE QUEENS. This new book sounds interesting.

  2. I almost posted about this book today too but events conspired and I didn't finish writing the review.

  3. Pirates are huge right now, esp with those Depp movies. What a refreshing take to see some women pirates too. Yeah, we women can be bad too. Hold it, maybe that's not exactly the message. Well, anyway, glad to see the ladies getting in on the pirate action.