The Pirate Twins

The Pirate Twins

One evening on the sands
Mary found
the pirate twins – so –
she took them home
and bathed them
and fed them
on this
and the other
she taught them how to dress
what ‘S’ stands for
where to find Jamaica
and the Milky Way
how to dance
and how to play
but they didn’t care
they bit their nails and sucked their thumbs
put things into the cat’s milk – and even
played dominoes in bed – until
one fine day
they left a note and…*
stole a boat
and sailed away
to sea
but they never forgot their home
and always came back
in time for
Mary’s birthday

*The note reads: For Mary we have gone forever dont worry back soon love form B & A

That is the entire text of The Pirate Twins by William Nicholson, which was originally published in 1929 and was reproduced in 2005 by Andrew Jones Art of London.

It is a fantastic picture book, charming and intriguing. And racist? A close friend gave me a copy for my birthday and the first time I read it I was gasping in horror. Mary is white and blonde and dressed in a pretty blue dress and red knickers. The pirate twins are black, obviously toys of some sort rather than humans. They are apparently uneducable and rebellious. Mary feeds them, bathes them, and teaches them, only to be rewarded by outrageous behavior and an escape. I was shocked by such an offensive stereotype.


On the second reading, however, this turned into a story of liberation, important for colonial Britain. Mary takes the twins in and tries to make them live like her. However, she learns that you can’t take replace someone’s culture or make them behave how you would prefer. Instead, the twins determine their own lives, but happily maintain a bond with Mary on her birthday each year.

Nicholson was a celebrated illustrator, best known for The Velveteen Rabbit and less so for Clever Bill. He was a painter who was friends with Whistler and the father of five children, including the wonderful artist Ben Nicholson, Nancy Nicholson, a painter and Robert Graves’ first wife, and Christopher Nicholson, a noted modern architect.

The illustrations are truly delightful. His drawing style is so casual, light, and lively. And the book is so wonderfully of its period. I wondered if the twins are from Jamaica and that geography lesson sparks their restless spirits? And is it an era when playing dominoes in bed is an outrage or is that a wry joke?

Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, has named the book as one of the most influential in his childhood and on the new edition, he declares it “The first, the best – the most gloriously original modern picture book of all time.”

I’m not sure I’d give it to a child—the racial narrative is too ambiguous —but I encourage you all to seek it out and intepret.


15 responses to “The Pirate Twins”

  1. Hooray! A children’s book analysis on the Great Whatsit!

    This feels a bit out-of-place, you know. I associate this place with in-depth discussions of politics and music and a more intelligent discussion of life and the pursuit of happiness. I’m happy to see we’re stepping into new topics and new areas of discussion.

    Why do you think he picked Pirates? Why not Gypsies or Cannibals or Indians or Chinamen?

  2. And what do you think B and A stand for?

  3. Dave says:

    Okay, Recent Comments not working again for this post. Stella, I think you break our site every two weeks with your fascinating musings on the fall of the British Empire.

  4. Bryan says:

    To build off #3, what do we make of Stella’s ongoing association of the fall of the British Empire with her own childhood memories and experiences? (Even if Stella didn’t read this book as a child, she probably could have, right?)

    And Kate — Stella’s an old hat at bringing children’s books to TGW, as this earlier post makes clear.

  5. Scotty says:

    but they never forgot their home
    and always came back
    in time for
    Mary’s birthday

    If one switched the but and the and around the story would be completely different. And I think much more political. As it is, however, I see it as completely taking place in the little girl’s head. It seems like an internal coming of age story.

  6. Bryan: Oh, yes, I’ve read this post before. Looks like I’ve forgotten that it’s why I added Enid Blyton to my Amazon wishlist. I blame Stella for that. I’m happy for her children’s book contributions. I enjoy them because the make the material of Great Whatsit so much richer.

  7. Annie says:

    You have eclectic interests and an interesting appropach to things, Stella. I find myself looking forward to your posts for this reason–and for a quick education on all things Brittish. I enjoyed the nuanced reading of this children’s book. And I wonder if the ambiguous meaning speaks to conflicts at work in the culture during the time of publication.

  8. Bryan says:

    i want to know what S stands for.

  9. Scotty says:

    …and why playing dominos in bed is an example of poor behavior.

  10. Dave says:

    Scotty, it’s playing “dominoes” in bed.

  11. Dave says:

    And that was not meant as a spelling correction.

  12. Bryan says:

    S apparently stands for slut. And I was thinking it stood for slave.

  13. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Is there a Wide Sargasso Sea response to The Pirate Twins?

  14. Scotty says:

    Dave and Bryan, that flew completely over my head. I guess S stands for stoopit.

  15. Stella says:

    “S” stands for sailor, at least in the book. And if I ever catch any of you boys playing dominoes in bed, there’ll be trouble.

    Scotty – I agree it’s a coming of age story, but I do think the racial politics are there as well. The combination of Africans, Jamaica, the sea, pirates, and the whole re-education piece screams colonialism to me. I like your rewrite…nice twist.

    Btw, Dave, I don’t know why you persist in sabotaging the recent comments. Every time I post I’m so disappointed that no one is commenting.