(Suggested reading level: Grades 4-6)

Loved this book! I read it with Amber (11) and it’s really great. It’s about strong women, okay granted they’re killers and thieves, but still you have to admire them. Women who succeeded in a man’s world, which you have to admit sailing in general and piracy particularly is.

Still, whether the pirates came from the lower classes or the upper, whether they did their pirating on the rivers or the high seas, and under whatever flag they flew, this much is true: they were all thieves and  they often committed horrible deeds. They pillaged and murdered and sank many ships.

Even the women. Especially the women. (pg. 3)

Yolen introduces us to thirteen of theses infamous women, starting with Artemisia, an Admrial-Queen in Persian in 500 BC. Some of these women I was familiar with, like Grania O’Malley, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, but most I had never heard of.

They were tough women, and Yolen does not paint them otherwise. their misdeeds are not glossed over, but we learn how and why they became who they were. Jeanne de Belleville, The Lioness of Brittany, for example sold her castles and possessions and took to the sea, attacking the French boats off the Normandy coast and destroying the French villages in revenge for her husband’s death. Alfhild, on the other hand, was a beautiful woman in ninth century Denmark, who did not want to marry. After a suitor killed her pet viper, she became a sea rover instead of marrying him. Well, at the end of her story she marries him anyway, but by that time he has shown his worth by taking over her flagship.

If I had to pick a favorite from this astounding list of women, she would be Madam Ching who sailed the South China Sea. Her carrer began when she married a sea captain, Ching I, in 1801. She and her husband created an association of local pirates, and when Ching I died in 1807, Madame Ching took over command. By 1808 she “commanded a total of two thousand boats, and seventy thousand men, the most any pirate in the world ever lead” (pg. 83). Now that’s an accomplishment. Eventually by the end of 1810, the pirate armada disbanded, the Emperor offering pardons, money, safety and homes to any pirate who surrendered. Madame Ching left pirating but only after she had no other option. It’s unclear what happened to her.

Yolen is quite clear that she is using the facts that are known about the women’s lives, but even those facts have been embroidered over the years, stories told and retold, exploits made more amazing. Most of the stories are folklore and legend. She also includes a list of other women pirates at the end, ones whom little is known about.

The illustrations by Christine Joy Pratt are perfect. They were done in pen and ink on scratchboard, and they just fit the topic perfectly. They’re stylized, not realistic, but they have the right feeling. The above is the picture of Pretty Peg, who sailed with her husband, a Dutch privateer in the seventeenth century.

Honestly, pick this one up if you have a girl like mine, who loves non-fiction, but isn’t into the princesses or the nice girls. I think David liked hearing it too, but he has a slight pirate fixation.

112 pages
First published 2008

5 out of 5 stars

Purchase at Amazon or an Indie bookstore.

I borrowed our copy from the library and the above is my honest opinion.