The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash is every bit as good a read as it looks. It is one part The Wind in the Willows, two parts Treasure Island and every other part entirely excellent! Once again, I have to give a nod to Candlewick Press for producing yet another wonderfully creative, well written, gorgeously illustrated and beautifully packaged children's book. However, the real kudos go to Scott Nash for conceiving this fantastic adventure and being a writer and bird watcher with the skills and talents to pull of what could have easily been a silly, lighthearted, overlooked story but instead is a book worth buying, reading, carrying into adulthood and also giving as a gift to every bright kid you know. In part, the success of this book is because Scott Nash is an avid bird watcher who brings his knowledge of the avian world to his storytelling endeavors. He creates an entire world with a history, an avian political hierarchy that includes a ban on migration and a mythology that includes a fascinating creation myth for crows and a view that geese are the Gods of Migration. The pirates even have a dialect that, instead of employing "ahoy matey" and "shiver me timbers" includes exclamations that sound striking like bird calls ("Cryeee!" being one of them.) On top of this, Nash is a skilled artist who illustrates his book with an attention to detail, a flair for the dramatic and a nod to the past. The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate even begins the same as Treasure Island, with a poem. Where Stevenson addresses his poem to the "Hesitating Purchaser," Nash titles his, "A Riff on Robert Louis Stevenson," and both invite the reader to "fall in" with adventure, hoping that the pirates created in their books will "share the grave" where these other classic adventure stories lie.
The first chapter of The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate introduces us to Blue Jay, the pirate captain of the Grosbeak, who had "some strange and terrifying lore connected with his name." Considered a "bloodthirsty and fearsome" pirate who is known for his penchant for eggs, Blue Jay is feared by all and ship's captains rarely resist when they see the Jolly Robin flying from the approaching Grosbeak. (Does it go without saying that these ships fly through the skies rather than sail over the waves? Nash even creates this fantastic form of kedging for birds where, when caught in a doldrum, they don harnesses and try to fly the ship into an air current.) Many assume that Blue Jay, in a cannibalistic moment, eats the eggs, but in fact he collects them, taken with their varying shapes, sizes and colors. And, from time to time, his collection hatches and he has a new crew member! On the day that the story begins, Blue Jay takes a fancy to a huge egg that comes rolling out of the woods, just ahead of a raccoon. Jay instructs his men to drop the tarsi (a name for a bird's leg and also refers to the twelve tarsi on the Grosbeak that allow the crew to pluck things off the ground (or from the air) to take on board the ship) and nab the egg. Little do they know, but this egg will bring changes not just for the pirates but for all the birds of Pax Wood.
While the crew of the Grosbeak learns to deal with the gosling that hatches from the egg and quickly grows to be bigger and heavier than anyone else on board, the birds of the forest are struggling with their own difficulties. A long, hard winter has left food sources everywhere dangerously scarce, turning even decent, honest birds into thieves who think nothing of plundering a village's store of grain. On top of this, every village is required to ship half of its stores to the capital every autumn to support the Thrushian army that is supposed to be guarding them but are never seen. Without the government's help, the sparrows are left to guard their own stores with the traditional form of self-defense, switching, which involves a great deal of acrobatics and a staff or spear. A midnight crow attack on the stores of the village of Briarloch leaves one young sparrow dead and another determined to do something about it. Add to this the hammocking (docking in a tree, dangerous at night because of owls) of the Grosbeak and bumpy landing that sends Gabriel, the gosling overboard, followed by Junco, the pirate who hatched him and has motherly feelings for him, a stone's throw from Briarloch and you have a recipe for adventure.
With the help of Hilary, a star-nosed mole who lives in Briarloch, the pirates and sparrows hatch a plan to overtake the crows and shut down the illegal forge they have built in a secret location. Turns out the crows are forging weapons for the Thrushain government and that is where all the extra grain has been going. On top of all this, Gabriel, who has not yet fledged, is feeling the urge to migrate. But first, the pirates and villagers need him to help carry out their plan. A great battle between the crows, pirates and sparrows ensues and wings are clipped and lives are lost. But, in a triumphant moment, Gabriel comes into his own. My favorite aspect of The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate is the bird speak, especially that of Gabriel the Gosling. With his communicative honk, Nash has imagined him saying, "NOW!" and he weaves Gabriel's words into the book at the most opportune times, especially when, after all the fighting is over and wounds and ships are mended, Gabriel leads the Grosbeak south with the hopeful message of "NOW! NOW! NOW!"