Fuse #8

Friday, July 28, 2006

Review of the Day: Blackbeard, the Pirate King

Arrr. Tis Poetry Friday, me hearties. Let us gather round the old blog and put on bad pirate accents until this whim of mine passes. Arrr.

National Geographic publishers have turned their sights to the world of poetry, it seems. But not your namby-pamby flowers and sunshine type poems. No, sir. Poems with blood. Poems with gunfire. Poems with pirates! And what better way to celebrate all things piratical than with a little Blackbeard action, eh? With all things pirate hotter now than ever, the time is ripe for a book that can be part biography and part illustrated history. Throw in a couple pirate poems and the concept is a touch confusing, but no less amusing. Author J. Patrick Lewis culls together what little we know about Blackbeard's life and sets it ah-rhyming. Though a bit awkward and difficult to follow, I can think of no better work of poetry to hand to those boys forced to do poetry book reports against their will. Or, for that matter, pirate loving lasses.

The book is twelve poems, each of which documents a significant moment in Blackbeard's life. From his early days as Edward Teach to his eventual piratical apprenticeship under Benjamin Hornigold, Lewis weaves together fact and myth to bring us the a book that appreciates Blackbeard at his best. With lush color illustrations from such artists as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and some contemporary works as well, the book is a bright brassy alluring look at a most notorious and mysterious historical figure.

The poetry itself is rather good. It scans beautifully and even tries for different poetic forms here and there. I can't tell my stanza from my ode, but I know enough about the art to know that Lewis is comfortable in escaping the standard a,b,a,b rhyme schemes so favored by lesser children's poets. I, for one, would have enjoyed a couple more sea shanties, of course. I mean, when you think of rhyming pirates you have one of two images leap to mind. Either "The Pirates of Penzance" or sea shanties. And if you're an original author, definitely go with the shanties every time.

One of the essential problems with this book is how the information is presented to the reader. If you happen to know Blackbeard's biography by heart then you should have no trouble reading the poems and figuring out what they refer to. For each section Lewis presents a picture, a poem, and, in tiny type, an explanation of the aforementioned at the bottom of the page. Sometimes these explanations clear up the poetry. Sometimes they don't. For the full story you have to flip to the back of the book and read through the Blackbeard Time Line. In terms of history and interest, this information should really be at the front of the book. I suppose the publisher figured the poem "The Brethren of the Coast" with its image of one man sword fighting with another made for a better opener. Still, for clarity's sake, I'd prefer a little history before my poetry. Or at least facts first, artistic license second. Though, of course, sometimes even the explanations leave one out in the cold. When we learn that Blackbeard would hold contests of some sort where he would, "light several ... pots of sulfur, close the hatches, and challenge his men to see who could stay below deck the longest", we're not entirely certain why this would be hard. An adult can probably figure out that sulfur stinks terribly and to stay would be near to intolerable. Child readers, on the other hand, are going to have to read a lot into the Frank Earle Schoonover painting that accompanies this info (an image which is more than a little oblique). That said, the facts that are here are fascinating. Blackbeard may have been born in Philadelphia... or maybe Bristol, England... or perhaps London, Jamaica. He eventually was pardoned by the English king in Bath, North Carolina and even settled down with a wife. Then he was off pirating again. That time period would make an excellent bit of historical fiction speculation, don't you think? I also loved the idea that someone could be apprenticed to a pirate. Not to bring it up again, but how much more "Pirates of Penzance" can you get?

Good rhyming pirate books are few and far between. Should you have a kid who would like to pair this with a slightly goofier outing, might I suggest grabbing a copy of Lisa Wheeler's, "Seadogs" as well. The timing of the publication of this book couldn't be better. Pirates are hot hot hot stuff. So when the next Talk Like a Pirate Day rolls around (September 19th) I hope you remember to pluck this pirate-laden book of Blackbeard fun off of your shelves for a look-see. It's flawed but still a lot of fun. Arrrghh!

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