Book Review: Whitebeard by M.C.D. Etheridge
Shiver me timbers, Santa was a pirate? M.C.D. Etheridge’s brilliant new children’s book is more than just shipshape and Bristol fashion – it’s an arrr-mazing tale of adventure and derring-do, finds Lucy Bryson.
Once upon a time, long before the red suit and sack, the man children everywhere call Father Christmas was known by a different name: Captain Whitebeard. In M.C.D Etheridge’s wonderful, swashbuckling debut, Santa started life as a pirate who sailed the seven seas on the good ship, Rudolph’s Revenge. Together with his motley crew – who include feisty female pirate Vixen and her disaster-prone shipmate, Donner – Captain Whitebeard seeks out new treasure while attempting to outwit his sworn enemy, Jack Frost.
When Whitebeard discovers a powerful gem known as the Emerald Envy, he must wrest it from the hands of a mysterious old crone and prevent it from falling into Frost’s clutches. If they fail, Frost will destroy the magic of Christmas forever.
Whitebeard is an original, engaging tale of fictional adventure and makes the perfect gift for Christmas. With 24 chapters it is even designed to be enjoyed like an Advent calendar in the build up to Christmas.
Mermaids, trolls and a host of other magical characters abound in a book that takes the traditional (and, let’s face it, rather dull) Father Christmas story and throws it overboard. Unlike other Santa spin-offs, Whitebeard has a real sense of swarthy adventure, fun and mischief – key ingredients that we’re losing in modern children’s literature. Rather than playing it safe, Etheridge’s characters are real – there’s boozy pirates and, thankfully, schoolboy toilet humour aplenty. Captain Whitebeard himself is a flawed hero and certainly no saint (yet).
Like all the best kids’ books, there’s a moral message to be found amid the fun - the characters learn about teamwork and the power of friendship as they work together to save the spirit of Christmas (and their own skins!). It also highlights the true, non-commercial, meaning of Christmas: enjoying good company and being kind to others.
Whitebeard is aimed (quite correctly) at boys and girls aged eight upward, and especially at those who have outgrown the usual Father Christmas story or are reluctant readers. As such, it promises to fire-up children’s imaginations and their appetite for books in the run up to Christmas (each of the 24 chapters are designed to be read one-at-a-time from December 1 to Christmas Eve).
Beautiful illustrations, fun poems and salty sea shanties add to this book’s charm and originality.
Rather than drawing events to a neat conclusion, Etheridge leaves readers guessing as to what happens next. Whitebeard, the first of a planned trilogy, is the beginning of the story of how Captain Whitebeard adopted the role of Father Christmas. Further instalments are expected in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Whitebeard should have young readers gripped from start to finish, with plenty of Ho Ho Hos (or should that be Yo Ho Hos) along the way.
M.C.D. Etheridge is a journalist and TV producer for SKY News, ITN, ITV, Channel 5, and Australia’s Channel 9. His new children’s book, Whitebeard, is described as a “rollicking Christmas adventure story” and is ideal for children aged between 8 and 12. It is out now on Amazon UK priced £7.99 in paperback and £1.99 in eBook. Visit www.whitebeardbook.com
Exclusive Q&A with M.C.D. Etheridge
We sit down with the British author and journalist M.C.D. Etheridge to discuss the inspiration behind his new book, Whitebeard, and the true meaning of Christmas.
Q: Santa as a pirate is an intriguing concept! How did you get the idea for this swashbuckling backstory?
A: When I first moved to Australia, the kids in my life over here couldn’t understand why Santa would arrive here in the middle of summer dressed for winter. Their questions really got me thinking and as I gazed out across the clear blue waters of the harbour, I started dreaming up some answers. What if I could give Santa Claus a really fun backstory? One with sun, sea and sand. What if Santa was a pirate? I started doing a little research and discovered that Saint Nicholas isn’t only the patron saint of children, but of repentant thieves and sailors too. Well, if that doesn’t just scream pirates I don’t know what does and the story began to write itself from there. Naturally, Whitebeard was the perfect name for a pirate Santa.
Q: How do you feel this book will help encourage reluctant young readers, especially boys, to read more?
A: I’m passionate about getting kids to enjoy reading. As a journalist, words are my life and have enabled me to experience so much real adventure in my life. But I was a reluctant reader once too, so I remembered back to when I struggled to enjoy picking up a book and began by focusing on the things that helped transform my reading habits, and as a result, my life. So for starters, Whitebeard is jam-packed with action and adventure, which is great for boys (and girls too) I focused hard on the writing style and presentation as well as the content of the story itself. I thought back to when I was a reluctant reader and remembered what put me off reading. Just seeing a lot of words on a page can be intimidating for people who aren’t that into reading, so I decided to begin the book with a rhyming prologue written in verse. It just looks less intimidating. Also, younger readers really enjoy rhyme, so I thought verse would be a great way to draw them in. Olivia’s wonderful illustrations also help to break up the story and if you look at them out of context you really do want to read what’s going on to find out what’s happening. As for the story itself, it’s crafted to engage those young inquisitive minds on the great mystery that dominates their childhood, who is Santa Claus and where does he get his magic? Even kids who have begun to outgrow the traditional Santa story want to know more about why he is who he is. In many ways, he’s the first superhero we introduce our kids to and will always have a lasting appeal. Lastly, split into 24 bitesize chapters, the book is designed to be enjoyed much like an Advent calendar. The manageable length and pace of each chapter should really help the reluctant reader to get going.
Q: Do you think the inclusion of feisty female pirates will make this appealing to girls as well?
A: Yes, I really hope so. Vixen in particular makes for a really great female protagonist. In many ways this story is as much hers as it is Whitebeard’s. She’s no push over and I think the choices she is faced with and decisions she makes are really interesting. I really hope it makes people ask themselves what they’d do in a similar situation. In this sense I think she’s really real and relatable. Not only that, she’s smart, skilful and proof that girls can not only survive, but flourish in traditionally male environments. Gretchen is a really interesting character too, so I think there’s lots for girls to enjoy here.
Q: The book is unusual in having an adult protagonist. Why do you think so few modern children’s books have grown-ups as central characters?
A: The accepted wisdom in contemporary children’s fiction is that books for the Middle Grade should feature a child as the main protagonist in order to make them more relatable to children. I can see the logic in this, however, I would also argue that it’s a rule that’s there to be broken. After all, the films, TV shows and avatars in computer games our kids love aren’t always children. I’d also argue that when you are forced to have children as protagonists, it does slow down the action a bit as the author has to explain why the child is free from adult supervision to begin their adventure. There are of course hundreds of great stories where kids are protagonists, I just don’t accept that it’s a formula that writers should have to stick to. Let’s mix it up. That’s what I’ve tried to do with Whitebeard.
Q: Whitebeard is divided into 24 chapters. Would you recommend kids (or their parents) reading a chapter a night? Or should keen readers be encouraged to keep going once they get stuck into the action?
A: Whilst the book is designed to be enjoyed a bit like an Advent calendar; so that parents can read a chapter a night with their kids in December, it should by no means stop the avid reader from reading on. If you like the story, read on.
Q: There’s a real sense of mischief and adventure to the book. Is this something you think is missing elsewhere in kids’ books?
A: To an extent, yes. The fun police tend to limit what’s available when it comes to mischief and adventure in contemporary children’s stories. They are even taking away some of the classics. Take Roald Dahls’s Revolting Rhymes. It’s genius. Written in 1982 this parody on popular fairy tales is without doubt one of the best children’s books ever written and has the power to convert reluctant readers into book lovers. I know, because I was one of them. Now it’s been removed from some supermarket shelves for offensive language. I’m not sure it would get published at all these days. It’s such a shame because it’s such good value.
Q: How can stories such as this help parents drag their children’s attention away from TV, online gaming etc?
A: I like to think that the concept itself is a strong draw card, especially for kids who are starting to grow out of the traditional Santa story. You can turn to them and say, “okay, you want to know the real story of Santa Claus? Here. Read this!”. A bit like Revolting Rhymes it takes a popular story and turns it on its head. I loved the idea of having Santa start out as an anti-hero and morph into the man we know and love today. Besides, who doesn’t want to know how Santa got his magic?
Q: How have Father Christmas myths from around the world been incorporated into the story?
A: There are so many myths and legends surrounding the man we know as Father Christmas, delving into his past is a bit like rummaging through a treasure chest, you find gold everywhere. Whether it’s the Dutch Sinterklaas, French Pere Noel, German Weihnachtsmann or good old Saint Nicholas, there’s an abundance of great stories to weave in. There’s also the opportunity to include various other Christmas traditions from around the world. If the hidden messages in video games are called ‘Easter eggs’, I like to think there are one or two ‘Christmas cards’ hidden here in Whitebeard. Each one a nod to a Christmas tradition or culture. Why not try and see how many you can find?
Q: What do you see as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas, and how does the book help get this message across?
A: I guess in the 21st Century, we have to acknowledge that for many people in modern Britain, Christmas has evolved from the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, and yet most of us continue to celebrate the constant theme central to the Nativity. For at its heart, Christmas, both in the biblical narrative and in its modern form, is a celebration of the family. And rightly so. Christmas is a time to celebrate, appreciate and love the people we have in our lives. So I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you’re a church-going Christian or you simply value the time you get to spend with your family, the ‘true meaning’, what unites us all, is love. This is on display for all to see as we show kindness and giving towards others at this special time of year. The triumph of kindness over materialism is arguably at the heart of this book, as is the central idea of loving and appreciating our family.
Q: When can readers expect the next two titles in the trilogy?
A: That’s a very good question, but I’m aiming to follow up with an instalment each year. So 2019 and 2020. It’s just finding the time to keep writing around my other commitments.