May 28, 2020

Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao

Written by Helaine Becker
Illustrated by Liz Wong
Groundwood Books
36 pp.
Ages 6-10
March 2020

The Pirate Queen was a woman whose impact was strong but whose details are vague, if not non-existent, and so Helaine Becker has created her story. Whether the Pirate Queen started in poverty and was captured by pirates to become a captain's wife or not, the story that Helaine Becker envisions for this extraordinary woman, born in Imperial China in the late 1700s, is one of making something from nothing, rewriting her story to one of possibilities and taking control. 
In Canton, girls like us were like ink: used and used until we were all used up.
But Fortune had shaken my bones and spun the wheel of my fate.
I had been given something rare: an opportunity.
I was ink, but I could also be the brush. 
From Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker, illus. by Liz Wong
According to Helaine Becker's illustrated creative biography of the Pirate Queen, the girl refused to marry the pirate captain Zheng Yi unless he gave her an equal share in his enterprise. So, when he died six years later, she took command over more than 1800 ships and 70,000 men, never allowing any of the pirates to challenge her. Working with other squadron leaders as a council, she came to dominate the South China's seas and its economy.

From Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker, illus. by Liz Wong
But the Pirate Queen did not restrict herself to the water. She also conquered poorer coastal towns until the emperor deemed it necessary to go after her. Attacks and attempts to starve her and her Red Flag Fleet were unsuccessful, as were attacks by British, Dutch and Portuguese ships.  When she finally decided to retire from the sea, she finds a way to leave free and rich while still thinking of those beneath her.
In the end, I had written my own scroll, using brine and blood as my ink.
I had never dreamed of the sea, but the sea, it seemed, had dreamed of me.
From Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker, illus. by Liz Wong
From Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker, illus. by Liz Wong
Though Helaine Becker is a versatile writer of picture books, early readers, middle grade fiction, and non-fiction, I think she has outdone herself in this story of the Pirate Queen. Her author's note makes it clear that little is known about the Pirate Queen, whose name Zheng Yi Sao refers to her simply as "Wife of Zheng Yi" but Helaine Becker writes her a life story of smarts and cunning, seeing chances where others might see despair. But Helaine Becker doesn't just make up a story about Zheng Yi Sao; she gives it life with words and voice–the story is narrated by the Pirate Queen– that make the Pirate Queen real and even eloquent. I can just imagine this young woman with her meagre existence deciding to make something of her atrocious circumstances, believing she had nothing to lose. In the end, she gained much and made a life for herself and others.

If you've been reading CanLit for LittleCanadians, you'll know what a big fan I am of illustrated biographies and Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao will become an auspicious addition to that genre especially with American illustrator Liz Wong's pencil on bristol board (digitally coloured) art giving the richness of colour and form to the story. It's the telling of a little known historical figure whose impact was extraordinary but seldom discussed. That's about to change. Because of Helaine Becker, the Pirate Queen has had her story told and her fierceness acknowledged for the ages.

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