Dear readers, over the course of my time researching the legends of the Afro-American pirate Black Caesar, I have come across many fascinating projects and interesting people. One of these projects is the children’s book series Tullybeth, written by two sisters from Miami, Florida, named Rachel and Marissa Cossio and with cover art by Jennifer Leiner. The first installment of the series was named Tullybeth, after the title character. It was published in 2013 in both paperback and as an Ebook through Amazon Digital Services. It was Rachel and Marissa’s debut novel. The following blog post describes the plot of these thrilling novels and then offers up some thoughts on why pirates continue to captivate both readers and writers of children’s fiction after centuries in the genre.
The first book in the Tullybeth series tells the story of a young girl named Tullybeth who moves with her mother to a place called Turnberry Swamp on a barrier island off Florida’s lower west coast. The action takes place in the summer before Tullybeth begins school in her new home. During these hot and humid months, Tullybeth meets an unlikely group of new friends and then stumbles into a series of adventures. These include tracking down the hidden history of the former-slave-turned-pirate Black “Henri” Caesar,” a legendary figure who had haunted the shores of Turnberry Swamp about 200 years ago and has since become central to the town’s sense of identity and tourism industry. As Tullybeth follows her curiosity and investigates the Black Caesar stories, she begins to discover that the legends might hold the keys to some of the town’s oldest, most dangerous, and most well-kept secrets.
Now, after years of hard work, R. and M. Cossio have published the second installment in the Tullybeth series, called Tullybeth and the Lost Orphans. That book is now available to buy as an Ebook, and it will shortly be available in paperback. In this second volume, Tullybeth explores the secretive and nefarious history of The Turnberry Academy of Eternal Youth. This institution was an elite academy that had once welcomed Turnberry Swamp’s children. The academy has long been abandoned, and many of the original students have been missing. In the first book, readers heard a few mentions of the terrible things that had happened at the Academy. Now, Tullybeth will try and dig up the truth, particularly whether the Academy’s damaging past has anything to do with the unraveling legends of the Haitian pirate Black “Henri” Caesar.
Overall, the Tullybeth books are a wonderful series of novels for middle-school readers that remind us how pirates have remained fascinating, after so many years, to both children and adults. Of course, pirates have long been a popular subject for youth books. Another Black Caesar, who once sailed with the English pirate Blackbeard, appeared as a character in a children’s version of the play Blackbeard; or The Captive Princess at least as early as 1815, if not earlier. Perhaps the most famous pirate stories written for adolescents–The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter and Wendy by James Matthew Barrie–were by no means the first pirate stories to be written specifically for children. Although I am aware of youth fiction from the earlier 1800s, I would not be surprised to discover that children’s stories about pirates were popular in early centuries as well.
With the Tullybeth series, R. & M. Cossio have joined a long tradition of fiction writers who have used pirate legends as a way to captivate young audiences. We love pirates today for many of the same reasons that our ancestors did. In a sense, pirates do what we will not do, what we are afraid to do. They live outside of the law; they take risks; and they make lives for themselves that are unconstrained by the conventions we have chosen to accept. In this way, our fascination with pirates is also about finding a way to vent our resentment towards a society that has forced us into a social contract. We romanticize pirates for many of the same reasons that we love television shows about other figures who can spit in the face of authority–mobsters, serial killers, bank robbers, revolutionaries, et cetera. As humans, we honor the idea of strict rules and laws that must be obeyed. Yet, at the same time, we cannot help but be captivated by those who refuse to obey them.
In general, I think that this helps us to explain why pirates are such a staple of children’s stories. As we get older, we are forced to reconcile with what it means to live in a society of rules and regulations. We are forced to work, to make money, to perform chores, and to be responsible for other people. So, in this sense, children’s stories about pirates tap into the sense of raw excitement that young people perceive on a daily basis–the world is a wide open place and a new adventure is lurking around every corner. But children’s tales about pirates are also about their adult authors, who write them as a chance to revisit that lost sense of excitement. Indeed, to re-live it vicariously through their characters and readers.
Interestingly, the romantic fascination with pirates is something that scholars and fiction writers share. This relationship is epitomized by the fact that the most quintessential primary-source work on the history of the pirates of the so-called Golden Age, titled A General History of the Pyrates, is a piece of both fiction and non-fiction. The writer of this book literally wrote true and fake biographies. He relayed factual events, while others he embellished or completely invented. Historians generally agree on the accuracy of some of the profiles, while others they say are about pirates who never existed, like James Misson.
Sadly, historians and fiction writers do not always recognize how common their interests can be. Instead they often focus on differences. Some historians look down upon works of fiction, saying that they do more to mislead the public than to inform them, and saying that they are generally motivated by selfish interests like making money and achieving recognition. Likewise, some fiction writers look down upon historians, saying that they lake creativity, do not care if their works are widely read, and often lose sight of bigger lessons about the human experience in a forest of irrelevant details.
For me, the Tullybeth series is a great reminder about how history can overlap with fiction. Whether we consider ourselves to be academics or not, we must remember that history and fiction are both tools for achieving the same purpose: sharing stories with others and inspiring us to see the good qualities of humanity and change our lives for the better. In this way, an accurate work that fails to inspire is often no more helpful than a work that is sold as truth yet is based in lies. The Tullybeth series is not a work of history, claiming to be true. Rather, it is a work of imagination that uses history as one of its tools for inspiration. On these terms, the series succeeds wonderfully. It reads like a more fantastical version of Harriet the Spy that takes place in the swamps of Florida and features pirates.
I would like to close this post by saying thank you to R. and M. Cossio and all of those who work on the Tullybeth series. In the few correspondences I have had with Rachel, I have been fortunate enough to share some of my research on the history of the Black Caesar legends. I have been delighted to be a very small part of this captivating book and I have faith that it will succeed at inspiring children to read more about both the histories and the legends of pirates. For those who are interested in reading more about the Tullybeth series, please visit their Facebook or the Series Website. Thanks.