Pirate Stew: Neil Gaiman Updates The Cat in the Hat

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.

 

 

Marks in Books 10: Sibling Stand-off in a Copybook?

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Cotsen in process 701453.

Don’t judge this copybook by its spotted vellum boards.  It looks anything but promising, but it is worth a careful look.    Elizabeth Harris, who may have lived in South Molton, Devonshire, filled it full of exercises for learning commercial arithmetic.  Her signature dated 1750 can barely be read on the front board (it is clearer in the photograph above than in person) and the headpiece in the second photograph above has the year 1749 written in the fish’s stomach.  Elizabeth did not sign and date the pages in her copybook like David Kingsley, so there is no telling how many months in each year she was copying out lessons.  She worked through the basic operations of arithmetic, troy and apothecaries weights, dry, liquid, and cloth measures, the rule of three, etc.  Someone must have felt it was important for Elizabeth to be well versed in arithmetic, probably so she would be capable of managing the family accounts when a married woman.

The title page, which is oriented landscape-wise, is the only one decorated with figures of pen flourishes.  The text inside the bird is not laid out perfectly and you can see that she had a little trouble squeezing in her name, the completion date, and the ownership rhyme which children frequently copied into their books, “Learning is better than House and Land, / For when House and Land are gone and spent, / Then Learning is most excellent.”

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Elizabeth didn’t fill up all the pages, leaving a short section of blanks at the end of the book.  At some point, someone–perhaps a brother–claimed possession of it.  Was she there to defend her property? Did she let him have it because she had no further use for it?  Was he much younger than she and simply helped himself?  There is no evidence that establishes when exactly this amusing page was written and who could resist imagining a scenario in which one child takes another child’s book?  The object then becomes a silent witness of  childhood experiences in the past. Assuming that the second owner was a boy is not, on the other hand, pure supposition.  Owner number two did not fill up the pages with lessons, but with transcriptions of a love song and a ballad and the latter is the same tale type about a cross-dressing heroine as the one in David Kingsley’s copybook.  The ballad copied out here stars a noble-born damsel from the Isle of Wight who traveled to France dressed as a man to find the lover her father sent away.

To look through the entire copybook, click here

Cotsen 7146.

Cotsen 7146.

One child apparently appropriating a book from another (often with the same surname) is not unusual, so interpreting the scribbles as a manifestation of sibling rivalry rings true to one’s own childhood experience, with stories in children’s books, and constructs of gender.  But children may also mark up books to establish territory by calling attention to their presence in a world which doesn’t pay them enough attention. The boy who hijacked Elizabeth Harris’s copybook may have had something in common with the greatest exhibitionist in the Cotsen collection, Thomas Webb of Pulham, Norfolk, England, Europe, World (another traditional ownership formula).  He literally inserted himself in the story by putting his initials over all the pictures of its protagonist, Tommy Newton.   Subversion or self-assertion?