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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Pirate Bob

by Kathryn Lasky; illustrated by David Clark

Isn’t piracy fun! Every ship’s a happy ship as it trolls for easy pickings. There’s loot to bury, hornpipes to dance, a wisecracking parrot for amusement, and a loyal mate to braid and tar your pigtail. By gosh, even the Roger is Jolly. At least, that’s the way it’s portrayed in picture books—from Long’s How I Became a Pirate (BCCB 1/04) to McNaughton’s Captain Abdul’s Little Treasure (reviewed below)—and underscored in toyland from Legos to party gear. Pirates packaged for the primary set are bumptious ragamuffins who, together with Wild West gunslingers and black-visored medieval knights, are rarely accorded the gravitas due to outlaws who wield their weaponry with malicious intent. Lasky and Clark fully understand the comic allure of this oeuvre and join willingly in its traditions, but they also gently suggest that buccaneering may not play out in real life quite as merrily as it does in paper and plastic.

Meet Pirate Bob, a seasoned hand aboard the Blackbird. More properly, meet Pirate Bob’s nose, a truly riveting entity that spans the width of the opening page and sports a scar that runs from tip to ear. That scar is the direct result of greed and was acquired at the edge of a Spanish cutlass; it itches to alert Bob when gold or treasure is nearby, but it also aches to remind him of the occupational hazards of his calling. Bob’s best friend, Yellow Jack, is a little worse for wear himself, having turned “the color of a very pale lemon” from scurvy. They’re as close as buddies can be, but “having a best friend on a pirate ship can be complicated”—since they’re both thieves, trust isn’t possible. Yellow Jack worries that Bob only likes him for his money, and Bob can’t help but wonder how soon Yellow Jack will succumb to his disease and leave his stash behind. When the British galleon Concordia crosses their path, Bob, Jack, and their crewmates terrify her, board her, and relieve her of her cargo, carrying our their specific tasks (Bob’s adept at slicing the steering cable; Yellow Jack’s an old hand at spiking cannon) with workmanlike precision. But when night closes over a good day’s labor and the crew revels in its ill-gotten booty, Pirate Bob is pricked with unease—not so much a guilty conscience as a vague sense that “he should feel happier.” Yellow Jack has more loot than he does, the trade itself is risky (“you could almost get your nose cut off,” and in the worst event, “you might be hunted down, captured, and hanged”). He brushes off these dark thoughts with a resolution to just acquire a few more pounds of loot and retire from the business. “Then, Bob tells himself, I’ll be happy . . . I think.”

While Pirate Bob privately muses over these practical concerns, no casual observer could discern his misgivings from the goofy game face he maintains in Clark’s rambunctious watercolor renderings. Bob, his diminutive captain (featured with parakeet Elaine on our cover), and the entire shipful of international zanies are everything cartoon pirates should be—comically bug- or shifty-eyed, raggedy, hirsute, and abounding in energy. Their victims aboard the Concordia are likewise as terrified and ineffectual as expected, with pasty-faced sailors huddling behind their pompous, bewigged captain, whose nose sits just inside the barrel of the Blackbird’s captain’s pistol, while Elaine-the-bird fixes him with an angry scowl. But alternating with the more vividly hued pandemonium of pirates in action are a pair of eerier spreads in which Blackbird sits stealthily with furled sails under a rogue’s moon, awaiting its hapless quarry, and then, with patched sails straining, bird-of-prey figurehead threatening, and cannon poised to fire a warning shot over the bow, swoops down upon the slower Concordia. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of this crew’s grappling hooks, cartoonish though they may be.

Lasky and Clark leave their giggling listeners with license—even blessing —to continue playing pirate. But just beneath the vaudevillian swordplay and carousing lurks the notion that there’s hard work and skill involved in taking a ship, and the gnawing suggestion that imperiling your health, sacrificing friendship, and dodging the law might be a price too high to pay for a disappointing box of bling. Clash those plastic cutlasses, by all means, but if a listing appears for employment under the black flag, perhaps you should consult with your career counselor, lawyer, and Mom and Dad before signing the Articles. (See review, p. 22, for publication information.)

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer


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Cover image by David Clark from Pirate Bob ©2006. Used by permission of Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc..

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2006.