Thursday, 4 May 2017

Pirates, Pirates everywhere - but WHY? A ReadItTorial

Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of Vimto! We're deconstructing genres again for today's ReadItTorial, in particular a subset of children's books that seems to be showing no signs of disappearing any time soon.

I've been puzzling over this one again recently, mostly because of discussions with other aspiring writers who are fleshing out their manuscripts and polishing their stories.

Pirates. If there's one success story in children's publishing since we first started blogging way back in 2010, it's the rise and rise of pirate books.

To date, we've reviewed around 50-60 titles (to be honest we've completely lost count) ranging from basic and fun stories for 0-5 year olds, right up to chapter books for late middle grade / early YA.

Initially I thought that the whole pirate thing would burn out very quickly, and was perhaps being driven by a solid fit for characters that would bring 'reluctant reader boys' into reading for pleasure, but as you'd expect, pirate books are just as popular with girls as with boys, and writers continue to find new and inventive ways to 'pirate up' a well known story trope or cliche.

Never try to tell Mighty Girl Charlotte that pirates are 'just for boys'
(Dressed as Cornelia Funke's "Pirate Girl" for World Book Day)
So the characters have great cross-gender appeal (though personally I'd like to see more pirate stories where the captain is female and more obviously 'the boss' than just seeing stories that tack in a peripheral female or person of colour character just to tick the right box). I'd also like to see race imbalance sorted out too but that's a discussion for a whole other ReadItTorial.

So pirates, why pirates? I ask budding authors this question - and the most satisfying answers I've had so far merely state "because pirates are insanely popular" which doesn't really distil what I'm after.

So I sat down, for a giggle, to write a pirate story - very quickly realising that it's actually a nautical minefield just trying not to tread the well worn paths that have been churned over before in so many other books.

Scrapping the idea, I tried to think of another way of writing about characters that are essentially 'lovable rogues', maybe even dyed in the wool bad (throughout the story, before coming to a sticky end - as in Jonny Duddle's fantastic "The Pirate Cruncher") or baddie characters who reach some sort of epiphany before changing their piratical ways to become goodies. Or indeed pirates who are pure of heart, and just like the idea of living a life on the seven seas, in an endless search for booty!

Gangsters? Could you somehow transpose the usual pirate cliches and fit them to a bunch of 1930s speakeasy gangsters a la Chicago in that era? Been done - Bugsy Malone perhaps...though that's not to say that there isn't a gaping huge hole in the children's book market for a superb bit of detective noir / gangster stuff that would work with a talented illustrator applying a fab noir style.

Knights and Varlets? Again been done and probably a genre that's now as tired as the pirate one anyway.

See, it's not easy. Pirates have more or less instant universal appeal to kids, purely because they're the sort of characters that children can live vicariously through, the sort of 'friendly enemy' character who can behave a little badly, and (mostly) get away with it - or at least get their comeuppance in an amusing way.

I've a new-found respect for anyone writing pirate stories for kids, purely because you not only have the problem of trying to come up with something fun and original, but you've got a huge challenge to shoulder your way into a near-saturated market from the get-go (and it's not like it's not hard enough to write for children in the first place without doing so with characters and subjects that have been so well used in so many interesting ways).

I can tell you that for all the times we've seen a pirate book come up for review on the book and both rolled our eyes thinking it'll be something we've seen a zillion times before, we're still pleasantly surprised - and I can also tell you that we've been lucky enough to see a couple of book ideas featuring pirates that will arrive within the next publishing year that - once again - achieve the near impossible of nailing originality and fun but still maintaining enough of those pirate cliches to be recognisable as pirate-flavoured books.

In the meantime, if you're writing a pirate story, it might be worth considering some of the points raised above (but be warned, there are pitfalls a-plenty if you choose to write your pirate opus with the pirates as mean and nasty bad girls / guys). I doff my writer's cap to you all the same though, I've tried and failed to create a pirate story that didn't suck - so we both look forward to seeing what you come up with in future.