How to Be a Pirate – Isaac Fitzgerald and Brigette Barrager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020
A little girl wants to be a pirate, but she is initially discouraged by the sadly familiar sexism of her male peers. Fortunately, CeCe (her very name suggests a kind of compact adventurism) has a grandfather who has firsthand knowledge of the high seas. We don’t actually meet these annoying boys at the beginning; Cece first appears en route to her grandfather’s house, determined to get accurate information about pirates and why anyone would suggest that she cannot be one. Full of wry humor and illustrations evocative of mid-century children’s classics, How to Be a Pirate celebrates both feminist values and the grandparents whose support and love enable children to succeed.
When Cece enters her grandfather’s ramshackle house, the articles in his living room point to comforting authority: a ship in a bottle, a large fish and a sword mounted above the fireplace, a print newspaper next to a mug with and spoon. (A later picture shows him to be a tea, not coffee, drinker.) His voice in a speech bubble comes from behind a beaded curtain, “In here, CeCe!” This is clearly a place where CeCe is always welcome. Grandpa is seated in the kitchen; the minute we see him, we know the denigrating comments of those boys will evaporate. He is appropriately brawny for a pirate, and even wears a striped French sailor’s shirt, but he also has wire-rimmed reading glasses balanced on his nose as he reads the paper. An angry and frustrated CeCe asks, “What’s it like to be pirate?” and his lesson begins.
When CeCe explains that the boys had told her that piracy was off-limits to her gender, Grandpa, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a ship tattoo, affirms that pirates need to be brave, an adjective unfurled in large font across his ship’s sail. Violet and green fish jumping through the swirling water bring to mind the palette of Alice and Martin Provensen.
CeCe’s grandfather helpfully points out that pirates need other less obvious qualities, such as the desire to have fun, here depicted as his tattoo of a flamenco dancer comes to life. (Grandpa must have an interesting story behind this one!) Most of all, a pirate requires independence, the ability to “face problems on her own.” Grandfather and granddaughter each ride on the backs of American bald eagles, a nostalgic allusion to patriotism at its best, when it embodies positive qualities.
Just to finish off the absurdity of the boys’ argument, Grandpa asserts that the most important component of being a pirate has nothing to do with weapons. In fact, love is at the core of this profession in its fantasy form. A lovely picture of CeCe on her grandfather’s lap subverts the gender stereotype to which the nasty boys subscribed. Grandpa’s tattoo of CeCe’s name, his warm and cozy kitchen featuring delicately painted canisters, a dishcloth with pom poms, and a casserole on the stove top all give CeCe the strength to assert herself, “her feet swift and her heart strong.” How to Be a Pirate is a wonderful vehicle for sharing with children, telling them they can enjoy the unlimited fun of imaginary worlds free of annoying and small-minded restrictions. Even those boys in their treehouse with skull-and-bone flags will change their tune.