Wednesday, May 9

Roger, The Jolly Pirate

by Brett Helquist
HarperCollins 2004

Recently arrived in paperback, this is a fine chantey of a picture book that tells the humorous tale of the Roger the Pirate and his namesake flag.

Roger the pirate isn't very good at being a pirate -- not knowing his starboard from his larboard, bad at looting and all -- but he is good at being happy. When there's serious pirating to be done the captain sends Roger below decks so that Roger won't be in the way... or perhaps embarrass the crew in front of the ships they're marauding. In particular, the captain doesn't need Roger in the way while they do battle with their sworn enemy, the Admiral.

One day Roger decides to do something nice to his fellow pirates, to get them to appreciate him more: He decides to bake a cake. First a little bit of this powder that looks like flour, then a little bit of this and that, all stuffed into this thing that looks like a pot. It's hard to see locked belowdecks so Roger doesn't realize that the cake mix he's about to set a fire under is actually gunpowder on a cannon.


Roger appears topside covered in a white powder and frantic to explain he was only tyring to do some good. The Admiral's men take one look at Roger and assume he's an undead ghost come back to take their souls. The Admiral himself gives the order to abandon ship and to Roger's stunned surprise the crew truly are pleased with him. In his honor they make the famous flag of the grinning skull and crossbones that becomes that universal symbol of pirating, the Jolly Roger.

This cheery little tale is, of course, a fiction, but Helquist does a nice job of giving the story weight by adding a song at the end that tells the same tale to what appears to be the tune "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor." Yeah! Get the kids singing sea chanties and dancing a hornpipe!

I'm sorry I missed this book when it was first released as it's a fine example of what good illustration -- children's books or otherwise -- is all about. Extreme close-ups and cinematic angles make this great for read-aloud audiences, and the story does breeze along. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but there are a couple of times I could have sworn Helquist included the teen aged Hook (from his cover illustration for the book Capt. Hook by J.V. Hart) among the pirate crew. Nice touch if it's true.

The only thing that saddens me is catching this after writing about Natalie Babbitt's Jack Plank Tells Tales and feeling like there's a bit of a similarity in the story of a pirate who is too happy to stay with pirates. I'm not suggesting either author copied the other, and the audiences for the two books is different, but I always feel uncomfortable when suddenly it seems like everyone had the same great idea at the same time. I'm sure neither of these authors is the first to write about "The Reluctant Pirate."

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