Interview with Leigh Lewis about PIRATE QUEENS

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Leigh, and congratulations on the recent release of your new middle-grade nonfiction book PIRATE QUEENS: DAUNTLESS WOMEN WHO DARE RULED THE HIGH SEAS (released by National Geographic Kids). I just ordered a copy of it for my library, and I can’t wait to read it! Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Leigh: Hi, Kathie! So thrilled to be here. And thank you for ordering Pirate Queens!

This is a book about forgotten bad guys of the biggest magnitude. Specifically, about six forgotten female bad guys, pirates who ruled the high seas, yet didn’t make it into the majority of the history books. Each swashbuckler has a riveting story that’s shared in the book, and it’s packed with fascinating details about their lives like what ships they sailed and weapons they used. Also, Pirate Queens is loaded with gorgeous, edgy, full-color illustrations, so it feels almost graphic-novel-like.

There’s Sayyida al Hurra, a Muslim pirate who dedicated her life to avenging the exile of her people during the Reconquista. And Sela, a woman driven to piracy over hatred of her brother, King Koller of Norway. And Artemisia of Caria, the first known female Naval commander and betrayer of the King of Persia, known for flying an enemy’s flag to lull them into complacency, then ramming their ship and stealing all their goods. Each woman’s story is more compelling than the next, and I’m so excited to play a part in expanding kids’ (and adults’) knowledge about who was there and what took place in real-life piracy throughout the ages.

Kathie: What piqued your interest in this topic, and can you share a bit about your research process?

Leigh:  Once I first read about Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate who was the most successful pirate in history, based on the size of her fleet and the people in her control, I was hooked. Ching Shih ruled 80,000 men. When I ask kids if they can name a pirate, it’s almost always Blackbeard they shout out first. Blackbeard ruled 400 men in his heyday. 400 vs. 80,000! And just about no one has ever heard of Ching Shih. It felt like such a clear example of gender bias, and it really bothered me.

Soon thereafter, my kids were “walking the plank” off the diving board at the pool one day, and it made me think of Ching Shih, so I asked them to name all the pirates they knew. It was a very short, very white, very male list. That did it. I set off to write Ching Shih’s story.

Lucky for me, Ariane Szu-Tu at National Geographic loved the poem I wrote about Ching Shih, and suggested we make a larger book, one that covered a variety of female pirates. That sounded like the best idea I had ever heard, and I asked if I could write each of their stories in a different verse form. Ariane loved that idea, and Pirate Queens was born.

For research, I began where I always begin—at the library. I read everything I could get my hands on about these women, and quickly realized that I needed a larger research library to access primary sources and other, more obscure sources not found at my local library. Luckily, I’m not far from The Ohio State University, and their reference-only section can’t be beat. For instance, I was able to lay eyes on Gesta Danorum, the Danish history book that references Sela and her pirating exploits.

And another tip of the hat to OSU in researching poetry. I identified verse forms that I felt were a solid fit with each pirate, but needed to tap into poetry experts to ensure that there was nothing I missed. There were poetry professors at Ohio State who were as generous with their time and knowledge as you can imagine, and who not only gave suggestions about the verse forms, but provided expert feedback on the poems themselves.

Kathie: If you could have joined any of the pirates you talk about in your book on a high seas adventure, who would you choose and why?

Leigh: Joining any of them would have been an incredible and terrifying adventure, to be sure, but I’d have to say Grace O’Malley. She was such a character, and her exploits are epic.

After O’Malley had robbed the English at sea for years and years, they had just about caught up with her. They had murdered one of her sons, held another captive and took nearly all of her possessions. She was the focus of obsessive Sir Richard Bingham, who had been tasked with bringing in the legendary Grace O’Malley. She wrote to Queen Elizabeth and requested (and received) an audience. Once there, though O’Malley was all but penniless, she presented herself as Queen Elizabeth’s equal, and asked that the Queen call off her seadog, Sir Bingham, and stated that she herself would stop attacking English ships. Queen Elizabeth was so impressed by her presence and her boldness, she agreed. Sir Richard Bingham was livid when he was told to leave Grace O’Malley alone, but he did. Fast forward a couple of months, and newly free Grace O’Malley broke their agreement and went right back to pillaging English ships,

My favorite Grace O’Malley story is that she gave birth below deck, and hours later, her ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. The crew begged her to come fight, so she set down the baby and took up arms. She successfully helped ward off the attackers, but not before angrily screaming at her crew, “May your lives be seven times worse off this time next year, that you cannot do without me for one day!” I love that. The new mom, exhausted from childbirth, has to go up and fight the pirates, all the while screaming, “Can’t you do ANYTHING without me???” Somehow, it feels so relatable. I mean, if I were a pirate.

Kathie: Why do you think young readers continue to love learning about pirates?

Leigh: Let’s see… treasure maps, chests of gold and jewels, pirate speak, parrots, making your enemies walk the plank, wild adventures at sea…. You have to admit that life of the Hollywood pirate sounds amazing! But even when you dig into the real story, it’s almost always a fascinating one. Add knife-fights and sneak attacks and betrayal and terrifying villains, and you can see why kids are hooked. It’s literally the opposite of everyday life in childhood. Land vs. sea, rules vs. no rules, parents vs. no parents, humdrum days vs. non-stop action and adventure. It’s easy to picture yourself in the thick of it, even if you’d never actually do anything like become a pirate in real life. That’s the fun of it, for kids and adults.

Kathie: What’s one thing you learned about writing middle-grade nonfiction that you didn’t know before publishing this book?

Leigh: Everything! I mostly write picture books, and have a few out on submission right now. I envisioned the Ching Shih story as a picture book initially, until my editor rightly suggested that Pirate Queens made more sense for an older crew. This was my first foray into middle grade, so it’s all been a steep learning curve.

I know this is a unique book, and that this experience is certainly not a universal one, but in the case of Pirate Queens, National Geographic hired pirate experts to gather up a dossier on each pirate to present to Sara Gómez Woolley, the illustrator. I was just blown away and so grateful for the commitment to historical accuracy in the illustrations. Each folder included extensive details on things such as the length of the handles of swords that would have been used in each pirate’s country during the times they fought. Or the number of sails on a ship they would have sailed on. Or what would have been prized in their culture or was prized by their family, in order for Sara to design a crest for each pirate. I never imagined that it would be such a group effort, or how many people it takes behind the scenes to make a book like this come together.

Kathie: Is there anything, in particular, you’d like readers to know about this book?

Leigh: Yes! Pirate Queens is a great blend of entertainment and education. In it, each pirate’s story is told in a different verse form, so aside from the hidden history/ female empowerment/ pirate hooks (no pun intended), there’s exposure to six various poetry types. My favorite primary source in researching this book was the Articles of Interrogatory, which were the 18 questions that Grace O’Malley had to answer in a letter to gain an audience with the Queen of England. It made sense to have her story told in an epistolary poem, or a verse letter. For Sayyida al Hurra, her story is told in a ghazal, an Arabic poem with strict rules that enable a beautiful poetic expression. Anne Bonny was a fighter from birth, and she never stopped being a wild thing. I was thrilled to write her story in free verse, because she didn’t seem to be one who would abide by anyone’s rules.

Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Leigh: Please come find me at and @leighwriting on Twitter and Instagram! I feel so lucky to have landed in the middle grade community, which is a warm and wonderful place to be.

Kathie: Best of luck with your book’s voyage into the world, Leigh!

Leigh: Thank you, Kathie! I’m such a huge fan of MG Book Village (and especially of #MGBookChat)!

Leigh Lewis is a children’s writer whose middle-grade debut, Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas (National Geographic Kids), spotlights six fierce female pirates, telling each of their stories in verse. Leigh’s adventures on the high seas have enabled her to call many places home, including Turkey, Greece, England, Japan and Russia, and she eventually navigated her way back to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Leigh spends her time there dreaming up stories for kids of all ages, buoyed by an amazing crew—her Turkish delight of a husband and their three swashbuckling daughters.

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