The Pirate Mums, the picture book by debut author Jodie Lancet-Grant and illustrator Lydia Corry, starts with the line: “Billy’s family was not what you’d call ordinary.” The adult reader—the parent or teacher—will think that Billy’s family is not ordinary because he has two mums, but the joke is on them because, of course, the reason they are not ordinary is because they are pirates.
Billy is really embarrassed by his mums because they wear pirate clothes all day, sing sea shanties and make their house look like a pirate ship, and when they decide to come on a school trip out to sea, he is horrified. But when disaster strikes and the ship’s captain gets stuck in the toilet, who saves the day? The pirate mums, of course. Billy realises that perhaps his parents aren’t too bad after all.
Lancet-Grant, who is by day the communications director at Pan Macmillan list Bluebird (where she uses the surname Mullish), started writing the story because when her twin daughters were three, they started noticing that their family was different to other people’s.
“The first thing I did was think, ‘Oh, I’m sure there will be lots of books that reflect their experience back at them’, and I ordered a few things that were OK,” she says. “There are books about how all families are different, all families are great, and there is a definite place for them, but I just wanted a story book that happened to have two mums in it. I was so surprised not to find one. When my wife came home from work I was ranting and raving at her about it and she said, ‘Just write one’.”
Lancet-Green wanted to use a trope that is familiar in children’s books, and she experimented with various ideas, including magic wellies and a magic hat. But as soon as she hit on the idea of pirates, the story came together.
“I wanted to show that even something you might think of as a traditional pirate book for children—something that has been around for many years—can be done in a different way.
The Pirate Mums is at its heart an adventure story, she says, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its message, even though the message is one of embracing the things that make you and your family different and unique. “I really hope that focusing on the fact that the parents are different in a fantastical way makes it resonate to children whose families are different in any way at all. It’s really about embracing the things that make you different and unique. I think it’s totally vital that children like mine see their reality reflected back at them, but I also think that it’s vital that all children get to see all different kinds of families in an incidental way.”
The story was pretty much done when Corry was sent the manuscript and the illustrator loved the adventurous nature of the book, as well as Billy’s anxiety about being different. “I have a five-year old and she has just started to get embarrassed by me if I’m over the top. I felt that was something all children can relate to... The other thing [I liked] was that there aren’t many stories where strong women lead in the pirate world. It was nice to have two strong mums as such a presence in the book.”
Corry has previously illustrated books for Zephyr, Two Hoots and Thames & Hudson, but never something with quite so much action. The palate is quite muted in the first half of the book, leading up to a rainbow explosion at the climax of the book, which is when the pirate mums use a selection of coats and a canon to get the ship moving.
When it came to drawing the characters, the mums came quite quickly, Corry says, and she wanted to show a sense of family and connection. Lancet-Grant says she loves what Corry did with the mums and says one of her favourite spreads is when they come downstairs in their most crazy pirate gear—and Billy explodes. “The look on their faces shows all the emotion I tried to put into words,” she says. “I didn’t want them to say, ‘We feel a bit upset, but OK then’, because all they can say in that moment is ‘OK’. The illustration needs to do a lot of work there, and it really does.”
A new chapter
The Pirate Mums will be published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in June, and Lancet-Grant says she is “thrilled” it bought the book because of its outreach with teachers and schools. “Not that long ago it would have been illegal for teachers to have even mentioned our family. If the girls had been bullied because they had two mums, the teachers wouldn’t have been able to intervene.”
The book has already had a positive impact in one playground, because Corry’s daughter told her classmates that yes, mummies could marry mummies, when someone said the opposite, because it says so in The Pirate Mums. “It was great,” said Corry. “She already knew that but having it in book form means something... it’s almost like, ‘Yes, it’s a fact’ when you see it in a book.”
As well as providing curriculum-linked classroom packs for schools, OUP will reach out to parenting and LGBTQ+ influencers, and is planning an extensive campaign around Pride 2021. Any plans for in-person events are, of course, up in the air, but Corry would love to do a bookshop window display and Lancet-Grant has a whole routine planned around asking readers to draw pictures of their own family.
Lancet-Grant is already working on a second title, again with same-sex parents, and has a “lovely” idea for a The Pirate Mums sequel. She hopes her work helps to forge a space for LGBTQ+ parents and gay families in the heteronormative early-years parenting culture, and there needs to be more space for families within LGBTQ+ culture, she says. “If you look at how Pride is covered in the media, it’s always about the parties and the club nights, as if that is all there is. LGBTQ+ life is as rich and varied as any other part of life.”
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