It’s Patriots’ Day here in Massachusetts, so, patriotic Canadian that I am, I’m going to give you another book by one of my favourite Canadian authors, Phoebe Gilman: Grandma and the Pirates.
Dear God. I know I say this for every single Phoebe Gilman book, but this might really be my favourite. The Balloon Tree speaks to me through its aesthetic, that fourteenth-century richness of line and detail and colour. The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs has a totally kick-ass protagonist who jumps in headfirst and figures out details later. Grandma and the Pirates speaks to me through its story, and particularly through the cleverness of Melissa, who wins the day. But you might be asking yourselves why Phoebe Gilman merits a third post here– I’ve already written about The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs and The Balloon Tree, after all. These are all by the same author, so what’s so new or different about this one? Why bother?
I forgive you for asking the question. After all, people probably asked Homer’s reviewer back in the day: “People already know about The Iliad, dude! If they liked it, they’ll go for his Odyssey, too. Why bother?” Here’s the thing, though: these books are out of print, mostly. I admit to having a sort of missionary spirit about them. I am a Phoebe Gilman evangelist. If I can do my small part to keep anyone thinking about these wonderful books, I will be satisfied. As for this one, what sets it apart is its audacity and cleverness: let’s be audacious and write about as many of Phoebe Gilman’s books as we want, even if there’s someone with a furrowed brow or rolling eyes asking why. Let’s prove them wrong. This book is totally worth talking about.
From its opening line, this book is teasing and daring: “It was because of her wonderful noodle pudding that Grandma met the pirates.” What can we glean from this line? Noodle pudding and pirates. Have you ever seen such a juxtaposition of opposites? Dante, eat your heart out! But that balance is at the heart of the book. While Grandma is cooking a noodle pudding for Oliver, the parrot, Melissa is out in the field picking buttercups and daisies. What an idyll! Grandma wears a white cap with a pink bow. Melissa wears a buttercup-yellow dress with dainty white frills at the cuffs. There are roses clambering around the cottage window. It’s all lovely and calm and clean and you hardly notice the pirate ship in the bay near the house…
But they smell the noodles and row ashore to get them: “Yo, ho! Yum, yum! We smell noodles! We want some. Yo, ho! Yum, yum! Look out noodles, here we come!” And they enjoy the noodles so much that…
I grabbed that page for you because to me it gets across so much of what makes Phoebe Gilman a genius. Which is to say that it’s one of my favourite pages and I love it. Notice again the juxtaposition of the heimlich and the unheimlich: cozy comfort food, and theft; the warmest and safest things in life, and the coldest and darkest; home, and being torn from home. But you hardly think about that black sack gaping in the corner while you’re bouncing along with the delicious rhymes and pictures. I remember staring at that page for ages, parsing the pictures, when I was a child. And now the Changeling does the same thing, so I get to experience it all over again through her eyes. Yes, it makes me choke up a little.
But her grandmother’s cries at being kidnapped alert Melissa, who doesn’t quite make it in time. She waits quietly until dark to go after the pirates, and this is our first sign of Melissa’s cleverness: “They’ll be eating all day,” she said to herself. “I’ll wait until dark. It will be safer to rescue Grandma and Oliver then.” Remember: this is the girl who was out in a field picking buttercups and daisies. Now she’s chasing pirates, but not like some idiot hero swinging his sword and running headlong into traps: she waits, she watches, she deduces, she thinks. And so she waits and swims out to the ship by the light of the moon. Unfortunately the pirates wake up as she attempts to rescue her family, and she’s kidnapped, too. Over and over again she comes up with clever plans to escape– lowering a boat as the pirates count treasure, hiding in treasure chests, etc. But they’re caught and kept. Meanwhile, she learns to sail the ship, and that’s where she gets her brightest idea: she makes a fake treasure map and acts distraught when the pirates steal it from her. And, as they head off on a wild goose chase, she and her grandmother and Oliver the parrot make off with the ship.
There’s nothing quite so satisfying to me as reading about cleverness in children’s books, especially a clever female protagonist. Princess Leora is clever in The Balloon Tree, but what wins her the day is her courage. I love courage, and Melissa is definitely brave enough and to spare, but meeting a clever girl in a book is always a delight. Melissa isn’t just clever, though: she learns and develops throughout the book until she’s smarter than everyone around her. Here, let me show you the page where she comes up with her plan:
Melissa isn’t the same girl who picked buttercups and daises in a field any longer. She’s always been brave– dropping her flowers and running to the rescue isn’t the act of a coward. She’s always been smart– she waited until dark to put her rescue plan to work. But she’s watched and learned here and turned her lessons on their head: she knows the ship, she knows the pirates, and now she’s going to use that knowledge to excellent effect. In other words, she’s learned something from and of the pirates. They aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, and she knows this, but she also knows their brute stupidity is hard to outwit by normal plans. Play into their games, though, and you can move them where they need to be for you to make your own plans.
She’s a smart cookie, that Melissa, and that bold intellect is what sets this book apart. So see if you can find a copy to suit you at that Abebooks link above, and set out to sea with Melissa. See if you come back the same person you went away, or whether you’ll never again be able to pick buttercups and daisies without scanning the horizon for a ship with a black sail…