I had originally planned to begin this series a little later in the year, but as it's such a bloody miserable January let's do it now. I'm talking seaside books. Books about long empty beaches, old towns stuck in time and mysterious things washing up on beaches. Or popping out of clam shells. Black sock pirates in the case of William Nicholson's practically perfect The Pirate Twins.
'Isn't that racist?' my wife asked me when the book arrived. 'Um, I think they're made from socks, that just happen to be black.' I said uncertainly. You see I was asked the same question on Christmas day, when my daughter unwrapped a copy of Tintin in the Congo. Fair enough it did come with a great big warning sticker on the front CAUTION RACIAL STEREOTYPING INSIDE NOT SUITABLE FOR SEVEN YEAR OLD GIRLS. Or words to that effect. What sort of monster am I?
Anyways, we had the requisite conversation and looked at real African tribes on youtube, so that's alright. Probably. It is a pretty racist book, but I don't think you should shield children from their history, these attitudes are still prevalent and how better to introduce them than through a children's book?
No such qualms about The Pirate Twins though. Published in 1929, a year before Tintin in the Congo it's a product of the same Colonialist world as Herge's book, but instead of giving us savages to be conquered William Nicholson presents a touching (albeit sock based) interracial friendship.
Maurice Sendak agrees, 'The first – the best – the most gloriously original modern picture book of all time.' It's this book that he cited as being a major inspiration for Where the Wild Things Are. Think of the twins as a combination of both Max and the Wild Things you're be getting close.
The Pirate Twins aren't like the leering golliwogs of Enid Blyton, they are feral, joyous creatures who love to dance, sing, put things in the cats milk and play dominoes in bed. They are children.
It's also Nicholson's poetry that links the two books. As in Where the Wild Things Are, the sentences end on a beat that lead you breathlessly into the next plate. There are just over 100 words in this adventure, but the pictures invite us to think far beyond the beachside, to Jamaica, through towering seas and into the Milky Way.
At the same time there remains the beach, a domestic paradise that is home to Mary, who indulges her young visitors with lobster, wine, dancing and dominoes. But the twins are pirates and become restless 'until one fine day they left a note and stole a boat and sailed away to sea.'
Of course the errant boys return, bold as brass to eat Mary's birthday cake. And they've been returning ever since – any children's story that unleashes a wild or uncontrollable child or creature on a 'civilised' family life is following in the footsteps of the Pirate Twins.
Next time: Mr Punch