Adventures and intrigues on the high seas await in Justin Somper’s new middle-grade series about a training ground for elite young pirates 

Words: Libby Norman

Every child loves pirates, but they weren’t always such box-office gold in books and films, as Justin Somper recalls. When he embarked on writing the first of his Vampirates series, Captain Jack Sparrow was still a twinkle in Disney’s eye. His first book came about when a strange word popped into his head. The word led on to the creation of an entire seafaring universe where some pirates exist as vampires too. Children loved the idea, and the six-book series has been published in 35 countries (so far).

Pirate Academy returns to this seafaring theme, even picking up some of the characters Vampirates fans will know (think of it as a kind of prequel). It is aimed at a slightly younger (8+) age group. “One of the reasons I wrote Pirate Academy in the first place is I’ve been doing Vampirates events in schools and at festivals for about 18 years now,” says Somper. “I knew there was this appetite for more pirate stories that had thejeopardy and the edge but worked for Year 4.”

There may be no blood sucking, but there is another terrific twist in Pirate Academy. It is set in the year 2057, when ocean levels have risen and the Pirate Federation controls the high seas. The Federation runs elite schools for apprentices – tomorrow’s captains of the waves – and the series centres on the escapades of three gifted pupils in Barracuda Class, 11-year-olds Jasmine, Jacoby and Neo.

The book is written from three perspectives, so has that breadth of voices to reach a wide audience. It contains plenty of unexpected turns and – of course – the tension, mystery and escapades that children adore. Also, no parents to get in the way. “Like every children’s writer, I’ve had to become fairly proficient at getting rid of the parents! At the same time, I do like having adult characters in the mix and I enjoy the interplay between child and adult characters,” says Somper.

School for Pirates – Justin Somper's gripping new adventure
Adventure and escapades await for the elite apprentice pirates – Justin Somper has added lots of twists. Illustration above and top: Teo Kaffa

He is a meticulous plotter – the second book in the series is already mapped out, ready for release in the summer – and likes to know where his characters and action are going. Since these are shorter books, and for a younger audience, plotlines have to be even tighter. “I use graph paper, big sheets, I’ll split one of these huge sheets into about 50 and that will be about a third of the book.”

The deep dive into pirate history he undertook for the Vampirates series has served him well here, as has his own immersion into the briny for sailing lessons following his relocation to Perth, Western Australia with his husband PJ in autumn 2022. “I’ve written about ships and sailing for, what, almost 20 years now, but with the minimum of actual information,” he says. “It was helpful with Pirate Academy to get out there for myself and just learn some basics.”

With the adventure of relocating and finding his sea legs, Somper has also become adept at global remote working – liaising smoothly from Perth to London during the writing process. For Pirate Academy, he says he’s struck lucky by working with “fantastic” editor Anne McNeil. “Famously, she worked with Cressida Cowell on How to Train your Dragon. Anne has done wonders for my confidence,” he says.

“Sometimes I’ve sought refuge in the plotting and the planning. She’s taught me to be a ‘pantser’ – somebody who flies by the seat of their pants. I’m never going to be a total pantser, but there was definitely a point in the first Pirate Academy book where she said, ‘Right, action! People will go wherever you want to go with these characters, so now we should tear up the plot grid’.” This was a scary, and liberating, moment. “It brought on the shivers,” says Somper. “But I knew she was right. Her instincts are always right.”

“Pirates of any era offer a treasure chest of narrative possibilities – you’ve got a rich world to play with”

His husband PJ also lives and breathes the characters and is another great sounding board for advice. “Both of them are very good at encouraging me to throw in more jeopardy.” Of course, children love that, but Somper also feels his recent experiences – facing the inevitable fears attached to moving across the globe, not to mention setting out with Royal Perth Yacht Club on sometimes stormy seas – add an extra frisson. “My books do reflect what I’m going through. Hopefully that makes these rollicking adventures into quite authentic pieces emotionally.”

There’s little doubt that a new audience will jump at the chance to join the voyage through this series. Justin Somper knows how to weave a cracking salty yarn, and setting action in the future is a masterstroke. But pirates of any era offer a treasure chest of possibilities. “You’ve got a rich world to play with.”

He is looking forward to meeting new groups of readers this summer on a return to the UK. “It’s really exciting when you are talking to children and they’ve read something you’ve been working on. For it to feel real for them – for the characters to feel real to them – that’s magic,” he says. “As to why kids find pirates so exciting – I don’t know that I can answer that but I’m glad that they do.”

Pirate Academy Bookjacket

* Pirate Academy: New Kid on Deck by Justin Somper, illustrated by Teo Skaffa (UCLan Publishing, £7.99).

Further reading: Robot stories, Simon Packham’s timely tale about anxiety