One of my all-time favorite historical figures is Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s pirate queen. She took over her Irish clan, made herself a wildly successful piratess during the Irish rebellion against England, and ultimately walked into Elizabeth I’s palace for a meeting under her own steam. (There are quite a few great fictionalized accounts of her life—though, sadly, all adult. Where’s my young Grace O’Malley YA?) She’s just one of many fascinating lady pirates throughout history, standing alongside the likes of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Queen Teuta of Illyria, Jeanne de Clisson, Sayyida al Hurra, and Ching Shih. And yet, somehow, we don’t often find historical YA takes on these real-life figures—or books centering on lady pirates at all.
But here there be pirates. Check out these YA books that take place on the high seas—including some historical fantasies, with a wee bit of magic—and all feature powerful lady pirates.
Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer
Jacky Faber is my first, my last, my ride-or-die. (Or sail-or-die, as the case may be.) This series begins with her parents dying in England, forcing Jacky onto the streets, where she ultimately decides to pose as a boy to join the British Navy. Her adventures unfold over the course of years, as she goes from scrappy street fighter to pirate—one who genuinely wants to do good, and be good, and find her own little niche, even when the rest of the world wants to force her to be something else.
Raven: The Pirate Princess, by Jeremy Whitley
My current favorite YA comic, Raven: The Pirate Princess, takes place in Whitley’s larger Princeless universe. In this world—where kings lock their daughters into towers for princes to find, where men are awful and women are their own rescuers—Raven has escaped the tower her father put her in and is on her way to reclaim her pirate kingdom from her terrible brothers. This book features literally every kind of woman working together on a pirate ship. Deaf girls! Hijabi-wearing girls! Queer girls! Brown girls! Black girls! Science girls! Dancing girls! Girls that look like Brienne of Tarth! There’s nothing about this world—and this crew—that I don’t love.
To Catch a Pirate, by Jade Parker
Pirate! YA! Romance! I’m constantly lamenting the lack of straight-up historical romance in YA—gosh darn it, Sarah MacLean, write me more books like The Season!—so I adored To Catch a Pirate. Annalisa Townsend is determined to reclaim the treasure pirate James Sterling stole from her father; she trained with a sword to find the Phantom Mist, which will free her father from jail and get her revenge all in one go. But hunting him down might result in losing her heart.
Pirates!, by Celia Rees
When I was younger and would devour every book in the library, I kept trying to check out Pirates!—but it was never on the shelves. Turns out, other kids wanted to read it, too. After her father dies, Nancy Kington is sent to live on her family’s plantation in Jamaica, and finds herself in a disgusting situation—both in terms of how her brother treats slaves and in his willingness to marry her off to the highest bidder. Alongside slave girl Minerva, Nancy flees Jamaica and join a band of pirates—one that breaks all the rules she thought unbreakable.
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The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig
One of my favorite fantasy reads of 2016, Heilig’s debut centers on Nix, who lives on a time traveling pirate ship captained by her father. He’s determined to go back in time and rescue Nix’s mother—who died in 1686 Honolulu. Doing so could erase Nix from existence, but she’s still helping him steal the map that could get him there. The different mythologies and historical places explored make this, alongside its fast-paced sequel The Ship Beyond Time, a gorgeous, diverse must-read.
Piratica, by Tanith Lee
What happens when you discover your mother—whom you believed to be one of the great pirate queens of the seven seas—was actually an actress? That’s what Artemisia learns in Piratica. After she flees the Angels Academy for Young Maidens and reunites her mother’s former “crew”—a bunch of actors—she discovers the truth, but that doesn’t stop her from whipping them into a shipshape team worthy of taking on the dread ship Enemy. Art takes her role seriously, and with the help of the beautiful Felix Phoenix and a dog named Muck, delivers a swashbuckling pirate story.
The Unbinding of Mary Reade, by Miriam McNamara
Want a story about queer lady pirates based on young Anne Bonny and Calico Jack? Because Miriam McNamara has you covered. Mary’s profession as a hired sailor depends on her ability to disguise the fact that she’s female, but when pirates attack her ship, Mary spots something new: a girl pirate, powerful and unafraid. And so Mary decides to turn the gun on her own captain, earning a spot among the pirates. The fact that I don’t yet possess The Unbinding of Mary Reade—which, readers should note, depicts true pirate history with all its sexism, homophobia, and sexual assault intact—is a calamity. Canonically queer pirate girls? Yes, please.