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September 26, 2012

New Books: The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate

Sometimes I find myself wondering what it must have been like to read a true classic—kids' or adults' variety—right as it first came out, when no one knew, for sure, that it was a classic yet. When parents and kids cracked the binding on the first copies of Where the Wild Things Are back in 1963, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1998 (okay, okay, Philosopher's Stone in 1997 in the U.K., I know), was there a dawning awareness that this was something special, not just for that year's crop of books, but for a long, long time to come—forever, really?

I think there must have been, because I recently had that feeling myself upon reading The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, a new book by Scott Nash, with my elder son. It's a pirate book, with our protagonist, Blue Jay, a good pirate captain—but the twist is, all of the pirates (and indeed, most of the book's characters) are birds, and their ship, the Grosbeak, rides not the high seas, but the winds and currents of the air.

And Nash—whose background before he got into children's books was in design and branding, including the original Nickelodeon logo—is one of those authors with the talent and imagination to create his own expansive, fully thought-out fictional universe. So the birds of Blue Jay's crew are each different types of birds, each with characteristics and abilities appropriate to its species: the hulking Chuck-Will's-Widow, for example, is one of the burly heavies of the crew, while Junco, small but fierce and scrappy, makes herself useful as the ship's navigator, and so on.

As I mentioned, Blue Jay and his crew are "good" pirates, chaotic and antiauthoritarian to be sure (the empire of the distant, unseen Thrushians is referred to as an authority of which they're particularly unfond), but essentially Robin Hood types. Their adventure begins when the captain himself decides they should rescue a particularly colorful egg from a raccoon—Blue Jay is fond of bright eggs—which eventually hatches to reveal a gosling, Gabriel.

Most of the crew is not pleased—Gabriel consumes far more food than any of the other birds, and everyone knows he'll soon grow far too large even to remain on the ship—but Jay insists that he's good luck and must remain. Which sets into motion a sequence of events that include the "sinking" of the Grosbeak; its crew's falling into the hands of a gang of, well, bad pirates led by Jay's cousin, a crow named Teach; and our heroes' taking refuge in a village of lowly sparrows (the peasants of this bird society), whom they rally to rebel against their common crow oppressors, with help from a friendly neighbor mole.

The book's characters and its language—particularly the marvelously colorful dialogue, which is grounded in classic pirate-y saltiness yet also has a bird-specific panache of its own (e.g., Jay's favorite expletive: "Crayee!")—draw the reader in from the first page, and the story flows along at just the right pace to make the book something of a page-turner. Nash's own illustrations, which resemble woodcuts, do what the best chapter-book illustrations always accomplish, filling out the characters even further, and making readers feel we really know them. In the illustrations, Jay and Teach and Gabriel come fully to life, much as Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat will always be those Garth Williams drawings.

But it's really the whole world Nash has created that makes The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate irresistible from the get-go. You get the feeling throughout that you're in good hands with this author—that he's imagined and invented a whole world of bird pirates here, well beyond the frame of this particular book and story. (And while I don't know Nash's intentions, it certainly feels like the opening book in a series—for one thing, we need to find out more about those Thrushians!) It's that, more than anything, that gives Nash's book the imprimatur of an instant classic. We loved it, and hope for a sequel soon.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

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