Pirate Stew, written by Neil Gaiman and exuberantly illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a new addition to the corpus of quirky stories about adventures in babysitting. One of the funniest is Alan and Janet Ahlberg’s Burglar Bill (1977), the tale of a housebreaker who accidentally pinches a baby. Melinda Long and David Shannon may have been the first to cast a bold buccaneer as the antihero of Pirates Don’t Change Diapers (2007).
Gaiman gleefully exploits the idea that pirates have to be among the most unsuitable of all possible childminders. Those running away from home to lead a life of crime on the high seas make dubious role models with their wild hair, bad teeth, huge hoop earrings, and ill-concealed sharp weapons. No one expects much in the way of nurture from pirates, mayhem being their stock in trade. Even if they stayed in one place for long, what would move them to register on care.com? Which raises the unanswered question in Pirate Stew: how did the parents hire Long John McRon, a pirate ship’s cook to take care of the children for an evening? He has the requisite peg leg and crutch plus a hook for one hand, but is too roly-poly to pull off the feats of strength Stevenson’s Long John Silver was capable of. This Long John comes prepared to fix the children dinner, with a map rolled around a wooden spoon stowed in his enormous hat and apron pockets bulging with what look like bottles of spirits. Doomed indeed. Their parents might have well as picked the Cat in the Hat out of the lineup on Babysitters Registry. Shortly after they leave for an evening out, someone knocks at the door. Thing One and Thing Two?
Worse. A crew of blithe buccaneers, among them a granny with blue-rinsed hair, a comely queen with a diverse court of fair maidens, a fiddler, and two that look like Smee and Captain Hook. There’s also a chap got up in makeshift deerslayer’s cap looking for a Sherlock Holmes story.Dinner preparations founder when the crew decides that beans on toast, spaghetti, or scrambled eggs are beyond them. Long John quickly takes charge and declares that they will all feast on pirate stew, guaranteed to chase away the blues. Simmered in a large container like stone soup, it calls for indigestible things made of wood or metal like figure heads and doubloons, thickened with parrot seeds, and seasoned with limes and mermaid’s tears.
Although no magic was used in the test kitchen, the uproarious song that accompanies the addition of ingredients to the pot sounds suspiciously like something a coven of witches would chant brewing up a potion. The last line, “You’ll become a pirate too” makes little sister, who is no fool, put two and two together. They prudently go without dinner.
Now fortified with bowls of steaming green goo, the crew commandeers the house, magically transformed into a flying ship, for a trip into town, where they swagger into the local donut shop prepared to steal the makings for a party. Tattooed Sally the proprietor proposes to let them have the day-old ones for free instead of throwing them out. The pirates graciously pay for dessert and the famished children fill up on the junk food which is their right any night a babysitter takes charge.
Long John drops the crew off at the Saucy Treasure Chest for a nightcap and steers the vessel back home with a few minutes to spare.The parents are so delighted with Long John’s report that the kids were good as gold that they overlook the state of the kitchen. Still hungry after an unsatisfactory meal out, the mother spots their children’s untouched bowls of pirate stew and she and her husband dive in, deaf to their children’s pleas to find another midnight snack.
And that is how those two old heads on young shoulders come to be pressed on board the pirate ship…
Chris Riddell’s exotic but adorable crew of age, gender and race inclusive misfits give the story its swagger as well as a counter narrative provided by the children’s refusal to be play along, from when Long John McRon hands them his card, to when their father, now captain of the ship, gives the command to set sail. Gaiman’s serviceable verse just enough “mateys,” “aaar,” and “me hearties” to qualify this picture book as obligatory reading for International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Pirate Stew would have been a better yarn if it had stirred up any sense of urgency or danger, like that nail-biter The Cat in the Hat where it seems all too possible that the mischief-maker will not be able to turn the house right side up before the children’s mother walks through the door.