THE BOY WITH THE EGGSHELL SKULL By Brandon Robshaw Scholastic Pounds 4. 99
From "Pieces of eight" to The Pirates of Penzance, from Popeye to Pugwash, pirates have been reinventing themselves and peglegging it in various guises. Anna Fienberg's pirates take to suburban life like men starved of modern comforts. Pirate Trouble for Wiggy introduces Boadicea (known as Boa), brought up by her grandfather, a retired admiral who runs a tight ship at home. She likes school because of "its great possibilities of uproar and chaos", and because of her friend Wiggy, who is benignly neglected by musician parents.
The pirates are accidentally summoned by Boa while leafing through an old tome of her grandfather's. Thick Mick, Scarface Pete, GC Dan and Tiger prove to be so delightfully slatternly that one is willing to forgive their improbable background. On the strength of splendid singing voices, they are permitted to move in with Wiggy and Boa.
I fancy Anna Fienberg might have been inspired by Jonathan Richman's surreal image of an Abominable Snowman in a supermarket "down by the peas and carrots"; in the second book, Dead Sailors Don't Bite, the pirates develop a taste for scouring superstore aisles for special offers. Fienberg's sense of humour is spot-on in this, and the related disillusion of Scarface Pete after he has won a Music World competition casts him in the role of innocent. The pirates continue to find favour with Boa and Wiggy by kidnapping their teacher, Mr Rocke. Ann James's loose-penned illustrations and cutlass motifs are the ideal visual accompaniment.
Kidnapping is also the theme of The Boy with the Eggshell Skull, a literate comedy-thriller to stretch Year 5 and 6 pupils who don't mind demanding vocabulary. As early as page 6, readers will come across "defer" and "antithesis".
The villain is an original. The Crow munches licorice spiders while force-feeding his minion real ones. His conversation is steeped in references to classical mythology.
But the character description also has the sophistication and omniscient tone of fiction for older readers. This is Mr Spofforth, the boy's father: "Like many timid men he had a streak of stubbornness in him."