Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao

Each of us has a method while we’re stuck inside, is what I’ve noticed: some knit or sew, some read, some exercise, some bake– and many of us just run after our kids all day.

Side note: I have enormous admiration for those of you who are able to successfully work AND look after kids! And I don’t believe anyone who tells me they’re working AND looking after kids AND STILL starting up new hobbies. Sorry, that’s just not fair.

OK, I admit, I’ve been struggling to find my footing, but a package in the mail saved me.

Do you remember Quackers and The Goose Egg? By Liz Wong? Well, once upon a time, I had an extra copy of Small in the City in the house and offered it up for free delivery to someone– Liz Wong wrote and said she’d love to see the book, but could she send me a copy of her next book in return?

Well, yes was the answer, given that I’m interested in anything she wrote and/or illustrated, ever. It was an honour.

So there I was yesterday, sitting around, admittedly in a bit of a funk, struggling even to read in between the Changeling’s online lessons, when a parcel arrived. Liz Wong sent me a book she’d illustrated, written by Helaine Becker (always lovely to see a book by a Torontonian!), called Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao, and it is stunning.

Pirate Queen.jpg

Look at that cover. Fierce and beautiful and unrelenting– like the sea.

This is the startlingly unromantic story of a girl taken captive by pirates who, businesslike, agrees to marry the captain of the fleet only if she gets an equal share of the business. When her pirate husband dies (within six years), she takes sole command of the fleet, builds on her successes, and finally works and wins her way to wealthy freedom.

I’m not going to go into the details of the historicity or bother to retell Helaine Becker’s telling of the story– get the book for that. Her writing is clear, straightforward, and riveting. Meanwhile, the backmatter is very upfront about what the history is, and where she’s filled in the gaps with her best guesses to make a convincing narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and think it would make a great contribution to any school lesson on pirates: a true, eye-opening narrative.

What I’m going to do here is tell you that, for me, at least, this was the story I needed now, right now, during Covid-19 when everything is homebound and difficult.

You see, I’m like Bilbo Baggins (sorry, reading The Hobbit aloud to my daughter every night– it’s on the brain): I never thought I was adventurous and I always thought I wanted to be home with my family all the time. And, you know, I do love it! But I hate feeling confined. When I read this book, I realized I really wanted to go over The Water, as Bilbo would have it.

And Zheng Yi Sao is a new figure to me on the open sea of the imagination: she never did dream of the sea, but the sea took her, and she didn’t wail or slip into a funk. No. She lifted her chin and said, “If this is what’s to be, I’m going to make the best of it.” Helaine Becker’s text has her decide to write her own scroll, not be used up ink for the benefit of others. Liz Wong’s art (pencil on bristol board, coloured digitally) shows a face both sensitive and fierce, never backing down, but open to negotiation with fate. And she made her own way and looked out for the fortunes of those who worked beneath her. After finally facing a real storm in my own lifetime, good grief, do I respect that kind of resilience and strength!

We’re going through a storm now, and we’re huddling away from the raging waters. Reading this reminds me to look to my own resourcefulness and do what I can in these troubled times. I hope that you, too, will find a book to read that wakes you up as this one woke me.

I have a lot more books here in the house, including more from Nimbus!, to share with you, and I’m getting excited to do it. Let’s hope I’m back more often now.

Final note: the link I gave you above was to bookshop.org, through my local Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. It’s shut down now during Covid-19, and until it can open again, I’ll be linking to that bookshop.org page. It supports them during a difficult time. Please, please, please support your local book shops right now! This is a hard time for everyone– the best way you can contribute is to buy from book shops which do online ordering (many do!) or through bookshop.org.

One thought on “Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao

  1. I went to a book launch for this book in Toronto on March 8 just before everything shut down. I was the only one there other than Groundwood staff, which turned out to be god for me, because Helaine gave us background info about Zheng Yi Sao that would not have been appropriate for kids. Of course, I bought a copy of this beautiful book.

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