Pirate Stew by Neil Gaiman

Pirate Stew! Pirate Stew!

Pirate Stew for me and you!

Pirate Stew, Pirate Stew

Eat it and you won’t be blue

You can be a pirate too!

(Pirate Stew by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell, Bloomsbury, 2020)

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell team-up again in this funny rhyming story about a very unusual babysitter, which is bound to delight children when read aloud for bedtime.

Gaiman says that he wrote a poem about the ingredients that would go into a pirate stew on a scrap of paper, and after filing it away in his wallet for more than 10 years, he resurrected it as a story to read to his young son.

Partnering with Chris Riddell, who he worked with on bestsellers The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and Fortunately, the Milk, we see Gaiman at his most whimsical, humorous, and fun. The vibrant and intricate artwork is something to revisit again-and-again for the small details that make each swashbuckling character unique, despite many not having a role in the narrative at all.

When Long John McRon, pirate and chef, comes to babysit two unsuspecting children, a seemingly innocent stew for dinner means something else entirely. When a whole crew of pirates turn up on the doorstep the siblings know that this will be no ordinary evening as they nervously wait for their parents to return home.

As is common with Neil Gaiman stories, the children are more knowledgeable, and clearly more sensible, than the adults appear to be, exercising sound judgement and caution when they meet Long John – a most unusual choice for a babysitter!

They quickly work out that the stew is not to be eaten, unless they want to end their days as a pirate, and an alternative meal must be found if they are not to go hungry. The adventure, however, is something they are not able to exercise much control over and they must put their fears aside and follow as the pirates take them on an unexpected journey, opening a window into what pirate life is all about – pure fun and recklessness!

Gaiman has said that the book that most inspired him to write was The Voyager of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, and you can certainly see some of this influence here. Gaiman felt that Lewis treated his readers like ‘smart friends’ and this explains why the children here are sensible and the adults are silly, because we as readers share in the knowledge of the young characters and are invited to agree with their assessment of their babysitter.

Gaiman also says of Lewis, that he was clearly having fun writing the Chronicles of Narnia, and this is also true of Gaiman in Pirate Stew; its whimsical, rhyming narrative and snappy pacing, with vibrant, larger than life characters illustrated to such precise detail by Riddell, clearly shows that this story was a labour of love for them both. The excitable pirate characters are an expression of this authorial voice and in reading it aloud you can feel just how much delight the writer feels in creating this story for children.

The tale encourages creativity and imagination, as reflected in the wildness of the pirates, but also in the children’s ability to assess the dangers and make sensible judgements. The children can enjoy the adventure for what it is, but know how to ground it in their own reality. This suggests that childhood, for Gaiman, is supposed to be free and without imaginative limits, but also secure and with key learnings along the way.

This is an excellent bedtime read for both boys and girls and one to revisit to see what else you can spot in the detailed character artistry. As characters from Gaiman’s and Riddell’s previous partnership – Fortunately, the Milk – appear in this book, I wouldn’t be surprised if Long John McRon pops-up again in the future. He is too much fun for just one outing!

Recommended for readers aged four and upward.

Pirate Stew, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, Bloomsbury, 2020

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