John Kelly: My Top 10 Children’s Pirate Books

John Kelly: My Top 10 Children’s Pirate Books

Pugwash the Smuggler – John Ryan

Pugwash is a pompous, bumbling Captain whose get-rich quick schemes always leave him completely out of his depth (pardon the pun).

He is constantly being saved by Tom, the cabin boy – the only character in the tremendously well-fed world of Pugwash who isn’t as wide as he is tall.

Pugwash isn’t really cut out for the cut-throat life. He’d much rather be tucked up in bed with his hot water bottle and floral nightshirt.

The illustrations are, in places, almost a graphic novel. The nautical details are convincing, and the whole thing evokes a charming world of moonlight and candlelight, where grizzled men with knives between their teeth and splendid stripy trousers hide in barrels.


Here be Monsters – Jonathan Emmett and Polly Bernatene

Pirate Captain Cut-Throat has a one track mind. He wants Jewels! Against the protests of his fearsome animal crew he sets sail to the spot on the map marked: HERE BE MONSTERS!

As his crew are yanked away into a terrifying mist, and eaten by hilarious monsters, the Captain shouts: “Monsters don’t exist!” He’s in denial, but eventually gets his fill of fabulous jewels – and his own just deserts.

Polly Bernatene’s wonderfully subtle artworks are full of details you miss first time round. The soft pastel-effect works brilliantly as the increasingly weird monsters emerge from the mist to devour the crew.


Captain Beastlie’s Pirate Party – Lucy Coats and Chris Mould

Captain Beastlie sits in a cloud of flies, surrounded by half eaten fish-heads, and sleeps with cabbages in his bed. Unfortunately his tidy crew run a squeaky-clean ship and, fresh from polishing the cannonballs, are determined to tidy their Captain up.

They de-clutter, de-jam, and de-anchovy his clothing and succeed in getting the freshly-scrubbed Captain to his birthday party in a clean pirate outfit.

Chris Mould illustrations of the Captain’s mattress and bed linen are truly horrible to behold. He draws the scrofulous Captain as a barrel shaped ball of mad wiry hair, all hunched shoulders and balled fists.

Plus, what is there not to like about a book that has a fez-wearing monkey in it?


Winnie’s Pirate Adventure – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The characters in a Winnie story are only limited by Valerie Thomas’s and Korky Paul’s imaginations. Fortunately for the reader, Korky Paul can draw and paint just about anything with a pencil, scratch pen and coloured paint.

In this case Winnie attends a fancy dress costume as a pirate. Then, with a child-like simplicity, the story morphs into an adventure with real (but cowardly) pirates who are defeated by children waving wooden swords. The whole thing is like being invited to attend the maddest pirate birthday party you can imagine.

The rules of time and space are not invited. But cake, pirates and magic are.

Pirates Love Underpants – Claire Freedman and Ben Cort

Pirates Love Underpants is a window into a world where people, plants, and even the sharks of Big Knickers Bay are only interested in one thing: Underpants!

The pant-obsessed heroes of the story brave crocodile-infested rivers and caves full of snakes, before finally battling another pirate crew to nab the ‘Fabled Pants of Gold’.

No gizzards are slit, only knicker elastic.

The almost sculptural paint and vivid colours of Ben Cort’s artwork make it bounce off the page. Plus, you’re always involved with his characters, from the anxious crew making their way through a scary cave to the beatific smiles of the sleeping enemy pirates.


Pirate Diary: Journal of a Cabin Boy – Richard Platt and Chris Riddell

Unlike the other books on this list, Pirate Diary is non-fiction. Richard Platt has crafted a fictionalised diary of a young man who (against his will) ends up part of a pirate ship. Floggings, murder, heartbreak and piracy ensue.

It’s invaluable, and replaces what would otherwise be a gigantic pile of reference books on ships, rigging, costume, weapons, customs and even dance steps.

The artwork is flawless. If there is anyone else in British publishing that can draw as well (or as quickly!) as Chris Riddell I have yet to come across them.

My favourite, of the many striking images, is the full page of the abandoned ship’s Captain. The unbroken sand topped by a sliver of breaking surf and the two desolate castaways is just perfect.


The Night Pirates – Peter Harris and Deborah Allwright

The words “Down down down the dark street they came” dance across the page. A pirate’s grappling hook snakes up towards the window of sleepy Tom’s house. The moon looks down from above, clearly shocked.

This is the stunning opening page of The Night Pirates.

Then, between one sleepy yawn and the next, Tom and his house are both transported to the other side of the world and into an incredible pirate adventure.

Deborah Allwright conjures up Tom’s world with sampled textures, pencil, paint, cut paper, and even what look like potato prints.

Deep blues permeate every page suggesting all of this is happening while Tom curls up safe and warm in his bed.


Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs – Giles Andrea and Russell Ayto

Flinn and his friends fall through a magic portal and set sail to Bag o’ Bones island. Here Flinn saves the wonderfully named Pirate, Gordon Gurgleguts, from having his bottom barbecued, wins a cutlass duel with T-Rex, and finally uses a tiny spider to defeat the awesome (but arachnophobic) Gigantosaurous.

This book pops and fizzes with energy. Giles Andrea’s text leaps about from page to page. In my favourite moment T-Rex squeezes ketchup all over Gurgleguts as he rotates on a spit.

Russel Ayto’s line scratches, sputters and flicks over dense background patterns as characters, objects and the landscape warp and stretch maniacally.


Cats Ahoy – Peter Bently and Jim Field

Alphonso the cat and his crew of motley moggy pirates pretend to be a ghost ship, and scare Captain Trelawney P Craddock out of his skin (and into his lifeboat). They take their plundered haddock and party on the beach till dawn, singing, “YO-HO-HO and a carton of cream”.

Peter Bently’s terrifically urgent rhyme scheme drives this action-packed story along at a cracking pace.

Jim Field creates a completely believable world of chunky fishermen who dream of beach holidays, and sleep with their teddy bear. The alleyways, gardens, and even bystanders seem real (especially the ex-rocker with 50’s brylcreemed hair, braces, and arms like a wrestler who stands by the harbour at the end).

The Pirate Cruncher – Jonny Duddle

All is not as it seems in this cleverly deceptive tale of a bunch of pirates who end up ‘consumed’ by their own greed. From its wonderfully subtle front endpaper, to the bone-crunching finale there are two different stories being told here; that of the puppets, and the puppeteer.

Jonny Duddle exploded onto the picture book scene with this book. His art was a revelation. It’s combination of beautiful drawing, almost cinematic digital painting, and striking graphic design made (and still make him) unique.

Look at the double-page spread where the pirates board their ship. The almost stencilled shapes of the gangplank, ship, and crew stand in stark relief against the fluffy pink clouds of dawn.

The Beastly Pirates by John Kelly is available to order online today as a Hardback or Paperback.