Arrr: Pirate tales for the younger set

One new children's novel updates the Peter Pan story, while another tells tales of an out-of-work pirate.

That "Aargh!" heard round the country isn't Capt. Jack Sparrow's war cry. It's the exasperated groan of parents worn out by their elementary-school-aged kids nagging them because they want to see "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

If your would-be skippers are nippers who don't belong in the deep end of a PG-13 movie, there are plenty of books that can slake their thirst for the salt sea – from the ultimate pirate classic, "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, to picture books for preschoolers, such as this spring's "Pirates Don't Change Diapers" by Melinda Long.

In addition, two highly esteemed writers recently turned pirate. In May, Newbery Honor writer Natalie Babbitt ("Tuck Everlasting," "The Search for Delicious") published her first novel in 25 years, Jack Plank Tells Tales. And last year, Geraldine McCaughrean, the only children's author to win Britain's Whitbread Prize three times, penned Peter Pan in Scarlet, an authorized sequel to the classic that boasts childhood's most iconic pirate: Captain Hook.

Both writers excel at wordplay and are old hands at keeping things exciting enough for small folk without terrifying their parents. And, going "World's End" one better, both plots make sense on first reading.

Babbitt's series of collected stories star Jack Plank, an out-of-work pirate. He was well-liked by his captain and shipmates aboard the Avarice, but he just didn't have the knack for plundering. So they set him ashore at Jamaica with his trunk and a bag of gold florins to get him started in his new life.

Jack takes lodgings at Mrs. DelFresno's boarding house, and her 11-year-old daughter, Nina, promises to help him find a job. Every night, they come back unsuccessful, and Jack explains why he can't be a baker or a barber or a fisherman.

The reasons all hark back to his life at sea and involve magical items such as a mermaid's comb, a mummy's hand, and a giant octopus. (In a neat twist on Captain Hook, a musically inclined crocodile saves one pirate's life.)

Short and sweet enough for bedtime

The tales are all short enough for a bedtime story, and none of them shivered my 5-year-old's timbers. Even better, Babbitt illustrated "Jack Plank" herself, supplying finely detailed pencil drawings. The title makes plain what occupation Jack will choose, but his job search makes for charming reading.

As his fellow lodger Miss Withers tells Jack, "Stories aren't much, of course, but on the other hand, they're not so little, either. And if we liked them, so will other people."

Wisdom has it that one should never judge a book by its cover, but Peter Pan in Scarlet is practically begging readers to do so, with a gorgeous painting of Peter by Tony DiTerlizzi. Inside, silhouettes by Scott M. Fischer evoke Arthur Rackham's illustrations for "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens."

But the artwork wouldn't be enough for readers to make it all the way from the "second star to the right and straight on till morning," if McCaughrean's story didn't supply the necessary fairy dust.

It's the 1930s, and the grown-up Lost Boys are having nightmares. Every night they dream of Neverland, and every morning, they wake to find "leftovers in their beds – daggers or coils of rope, a pile of leaves or a hook." When a full-grown crocodile appears after an ill-advised nap at the Gentleman's Club, Wendy decides they must return to Neverland to help Peter.

The only problem: Grown-ups can't fly.

Wendy finds new wings

Wendy isn't one to let a few details stop her, so she and the boys head for the park, make a baby laugh, and voilà: One spanking-new fairy, Fireflyer, who has an insatiable appetite and a penchant for telling lies.

Then, the only thing left is to apply for vacation from work, kiss the kids and spouses goodbye, and wriggle into their children's clothes. "Everyone knows that when you put on dressing-up clothes, you become someone else." (For Tootles, who has only girls, the transformation proves a little more dramatic.)

Once in Neverland, they find things in disarray. For one, it's no longer summer. For another, the mermaids have vanished, and the fairies are at war.

There's a mysterious circus impresario named Ravello who has set up shop in the Neverwood. And even Peter, cocky as ever, no longer seems immune to consequences.

"Peter Pan in Scarlet" captures Barrie's poignancy and retains the willfulness of the boy who refused to grow up. But McCaughrean doesn't follow Barrie slavishly. The body count is far lower, for one, and McCaughrean, as modern mothers do, has made Peter's playtime less bloodthirsty.

Whether a result of this or no, it must be said, that her Neverland has less wild magic than Barrie's. (More tellingly, after World War I, nobody repeats the line, "To die will be an awfully big adventure.")

McCaughrean also dials the worship of childhood way back. In the 2004 movie "Finding Neverland," Barrie remarks that "Young boys should never be sent to bed … they always wake up a day older," and in "Peter Pan and Wendy," he comments dolefully that age "two is the beginning of the end."

One scene could have been written as a gentle counter to this. In it, one of the Lost Boys finds he doesn't want to become a boy again.

"Nibs… well, Mr. Nibs simply could not do it. Standing beside the bunks in the back bedroom, watching the sleeping faces of his little ones, he simply could not imagine going anywhere without them – ever. He resigned then and there from the trip to Neverland. In fact, he even woke the little ones up to ask, "What has Neverland got that could possibly be better than you?"

Parents reading to their own little ones will heartily concur.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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