If you subscribe to the idea that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” Upper Arlington author Leigh Lewis has a children’s book for you.
“Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas,” offers the stories of six notorious pirates who may have been the most dangerous women in history.
“When we think of what we really believe to be completely male-dominated entities, piracy is one of them,” Lewis says. “And the reality is, that’s just not the case. We have women from throughout the ages, from all over the world, who were pirates.”
Inspiration struck when Lewis read a website post about Ching Shih, a prostitute who married a pirate and became his equal, eventually commanding more ships and more men (80,000) than any other pirate in history. She says she was dumbfounded by the story and had to know more. “She was the most successful pirate who ever lived—male or female—and I thought this was fascinating,” Lewis says. “You picture a pirate, and you picture Blackbeard, right?”
After hearing her three kids playing pirates at the pool, Lewis asked them to name pirates they’d heard of. All of the answers were men. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a gap in our education,’” she says.
It didn’t take long before Lewis began researching Ching Shih “and that led me down all kinds of rabbit holes on other female pirates.”
“That was the origin of ‘Pirate Queens,’ this disbelief that nobody I knew, nobody in my orbit, had ever heard of the most successful pirate that ever lived.”
The result is a nonfiction middle-grade book (for kids age 8-12) published in January by National Geographic Kids, with illustrations by Sara Gómez Woolley.
Lewis does each profile in a different style of verse, merging history with poetry. “This is full of pictures, so younger kids can look at it,” she says. “But it also has pretty mature content in terms of it being different verse forms, so, for older kids, it could be used as a poetry lesson, a lesson in women’s history, all that comes along with it.”
Lewis, who has written board books with her father, former national Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, says “Pirate Queens” was everything a writer could ask for. “It’s a topic that not only do you find interesting, but literally everyone you talk with is like, ‘That’s so cool!’” she says. “Who doesn’t like to hear about pirates?”
Eat your heart out, Blackbeard.
A shorter version of this story appears in “Parent Pulse” in the Spring 2022 issue of Columbus Parent.