My thanks to Pushkin Press and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.

I have been enjoying exploring Pushkin Press’s vast and interesting list of translated literature from different parts of the globe, and from its children’s catalogue have found especially fun titles from Dutch children’s fiction. I’ve read and loved titles by Tonke Dragt, and earlier this year read my first one by author Paul Biegel, The King of the Copper Mountain which was a great deal of fun, and so when this book by Biegel turned up, I of course picked it up.

This edition of The Little Captain is actually three books, The Little Captain (1971), The Little Captain and the Seven Towers (1973), and The Little Captain and the Pirate Treasure (1980) in one. These are stories of seafaring adventure alright, but with a difference for the Neversink aboard which we sail is captained by a child, the Little Captain of the title (he never has a name), and all its crew are children too!

As our story opens, we find the Little Captain living in his boat on top of the dunes where he has been washed ashore and his boat wrecked. He refuses to leave it however, and when the shipwrecked sailor, Salty asks him what he wishes to do, he informs him that he wants to repair the boat, and sail to the island of Evertaller where people are rumoured to grow overnight, for in the real world, it takes too long to grow. Thrilled by the prospect that one could grow up overnight and not have to go to school anymore, children from the village help him repair the boat—building a new engine, propeller and other things from bits and pieces they find on the streets (a bathtub and kettle among them) and also coins they collect from the Little Captain playing his trumpet. All the children are fetched back by their angry parents, but when the Little Captain is ready to set sail and plays his trumpet, Marinka and Podgy Plum, two of the children come aboard, and also present is Timid Thomas who appears on board all of a sudden, but is terrified of actually sailing. But sail he must, and with Podgy firing the engine, Marinka making pancakes for everyone to eat, Thomas swabbing the decks and the Little Captain leading, they set off.  

But what starts off as a quest to grow up overnight turns into a much bigger adventure as they sail to different lands, locating Salty’s old shipmates (for he’s remarked without specifying, ‘Perhaps you will bring them all back with you’) who’ve been stranded at different places. In the process, the meet a set of circus animals whose ship was wrecked too, go to a volcanic island, encounter the dangerous Father Bluecrab and his daughters, a magician, and even a ghost ship. The search for Salty’s shipmates is spread over the first two books, with the Little Captain and his crew being taken from adventure to adventure without necessarily seeking it, while the third book covers a second journey made to return seven treasure chests to their rightful owner.

With a bit of magic but lots of adventure, in The Little Captain, we travel to interesting lands, face challenges and dangers, but also have a lot of fun. Beigel creates plenty of imaginative places and fun adventures for our characters to be on, and makes it perfectly believable that the Neversink has only children for its Captain and crew, who function perfectly well in the wide world, with perhaps only a slight expression of surprise by those they encounter that they are only small kids. The world he creates is a combination of magic, imagination, and the real world for while they may be Father Bluecrab and his daughters with their deadly song or a magician in the Land of Nonsense and Knowledge who sets them gruelling tasks, there is also the equator where the children lose their shadows, the icy north, and the mystical and exotic east.

Having recently joined in for #Narniathon21 over the past few months, it was hard not to see the parallels while reading this book. For somewhat like the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we have our adventurers travelling to different lands aboard their ship, facing different challenges, locating missing sailors, and putting things to rights while they are at it. Also, like the Horse and His Boy, the east to which they travel has those same exotic ‘Arabian Nights’ elements coming through in its illustrations like in that book. The third of The Little Captain’s adventures has a similar quest format.

And reflecting not only Narnia, but also broader literary trends (and indeed cultural traditions) number 7 has a role to play here as well, with Salty and his shipmates numbering 7 in all, the magician in the Land of Nonsense and Knowledge tasking them with 7 hard labours taking them to 7 towers, and the treasure chests to be returned to their owners in the last adventure again numbering 7.

The characters too were interesting creations. The Little Captain has definite shades of Peter Pan, but unlike Peter who doesn’t want to grow up, he does; he is more or less a free spirit, acting much on his own and not looking for safety or security, and with a strong sense of right and of duty. Marinka also stands out in the book for while on the one side, she takes on the stereotypical role of making the pancakes for everyone, she is also brave volunteering for tasks and climbing as high and fast as the others, and also giving Timid Thomas a piece of her mind much of the time. Podgy is jolly and a hard worker keeping the ship, going while Thomas simply quivers (well, he does swab the deck too)! These were really enjoyable stories with lots of fun elements, of which I especially liked the adventure of the Pirate’s Treasure (the third book).

But I can see that had I read these as a child, I would have had especial fun with all the adventures and the different lands they travel to. But even now, a wonderful read!

Copy reviewed: Kindle ARC; Pushkin Children’s Press, 2022.


9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Little Captain by Paul Biegel, translated by Gillian Hume and Paul Biegel and illustrated by Sally Collins

  1. This sounds really lovely, Mallika, and I like the fact that it’s that it’s creative and imaginative but still in touch with elements of reality. The best of both worlds, so to speak.


    1. I loved that element too; there is reality to keep one in this world, yet a bit of magic too. Largely though, the stories have an adventure tone to them with elements of magic being limited to a few.


  2. It’s lovely, isn’t it, that the more we read the more we find interconnections – intentional or otherwise – between books and people and ideas: the echoes of Narnia in these books is one, though that’s not to suggest Biegel was aping or even aware of Lewis’s work (though I see that he was a fan of Tolkien’s work).

    Liked by 1 person

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