BOOKS The perils of writing PIRATE ACADEMY


How do you rework old characters in a new and refreshing way while staying true to the originals? Author Justin Somper talks about the challenges and pitfalls of revisiting his well-known characters, and making them five years younger, for a new series. 

I recently read All the Broken Places, John Boyne’s brilliant companion novel to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In his author’s note, Boyne writes, “revisiting characters from an earlier work can be a risky but exhilarating experience for a novelist, particularly if those characters come from the best-known book of one’s career.” This immediately resonated with me. My Vampirates books have never reached the stellar heights of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but they are sufficiently well-known and loved that I experienced trepidation as I journeyed back into the story world I’d created years before to begin work on my new series, Pirate Academy.


I’d harboured the idea to create Pirate Academy for some time. Although the elite school features strongly in the Vampirates sequence, I thought it had more potential to come front and centre. It’s a location and concept that Vampirates readers really enjoy. Going into schools over the past 18 years, I have often been asked for pirate stories, retaining my character and edge, suitable for younger readers. Pirate Academy seemed an excellent way to deliver this.


I knew I wanted to bring across some key characters, including Jacoby Blunt and Jasmine Peacock. When we first meet these two in Vampirates: Tide of Terror, they are in their final year at the Academy. I decided to roll the story back five years and reimagine Jacoby and Jasmine as 11 year-olds. One of the first challenges I faced was whether these well-established characters would deliver as their younger selves. Although Pirate Academy is designed to work as an independent series, there is also the opportunity to read it and move on to the Vampirates novels. Jasmine and Jacoby’s personalities needed to be consistent enough to draw a line for those readers who do read on – but crucially they also need to be believable and engaging as 11 year-olds. I also wanted to allow for their characters developing over the next five years.


To reverse-engineer this, I took key elements of their personality – including Jacoby’s bravado and Jasmine’s calm – and thought about how these qualities might be more or less apparent in their younger selves. It was helpful bringing in new characters as their friends and classmates, including the third main protagonist, mysterious “new kid on deck” Neo Splice. Ultimately, characters show who they are through their friendships, rivalries and the challenges they face.


One of the books in the Vampirates series by Justin Somper

There are 15 young students in Barracuda Class and they are intentionally a diverse bunch. Wing Moon has two mums – both formidable pirate captains. Ace sword-hand Shay O’Shea identifies as non-binary. Athletic, emotionally-intelligent Leif Larsen is an amputee (due to a shark attack) with a prosthetic leg. This casting is not a gratuitous, tick-box exercise. As a contemporary children’s author, it’s important to me that my books are diverse and inclusive. I want children from all kinds of backgrounds to see the possibility of themselves in my adventure stories. I’m really grateful for the guidance I’ve received from the Douglas Bader Foundation and LimbPower in accurately depicting Leif’s prosthetics.


I had a lot of adult characters ready to import from Vampirates into Pirate Academy. These include Headcaptain Commodore John Kuo – who, Vampirates readers will know, meets a deliciously grisly end in Vampirates: Black Heart. As I went on with John Kuo in Vampirates, I found him increasingly pompous. So, although I have brought him over to Pirate Academy, I decided to have some fun with him. I’ve teamed him up with a new deputy, Captain Mayday Salt who, in so many ways, would be a more dependable Head. I’ve done this for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted a female captain in a senior role at the Academy. Secondly, Mayday’s bounteous wisdom and empathy contrast with Kuo and raise questions about his leadership qualities. Thirdly, from a story point of view, I thought it would be fun to introduce a deputy who we haven’t seen before. There’s an obvious question building – why isn’t Mayday present in Vampirates? What happens to her?


The same is true with Neo Splice. What’s happened to him in the intervening five years? I think I’ve already got exciting answers to what happens to both these characters and how their fates might ultimately offer a bridge from Pirate Academy to Vampirates. I’m looking forward to working this through.


To reverse-engineer this, I took key elements of their personality – including Jacoby’s bravado and Jasmine’s calm – and thought about how these qualities might be more or less apparent in their younger selves

But please don’t be under the impression that it was all plain sailing. There are numerous decisions I made when writing Vampirates that set up challenges for me with breaking out Pirate Academy. For instance, I’d established that there are just 15 students in each year group and therefore only 150 students in total. Which, let’s face it, doesn’t make for optimal crowd scenes. Whenever I write a scene set in the Octopus – the Academy’s main assembly hall – I silently acknowledge that the assembled students will have to clap and cheer very loudly! I decided I had to stick with this number, for continuity, and make a virtue of it. Having the small class size helps emphasise how precious each and every place at Pirate Academy is. With just 15 students, I can establish each of them as delineated characters, though inevitably some have more “screen time” than others. I’ve further reframed the numbers issue by revealing there are nine Pirate Academies around the world. This usefully adds to the sense of scale as well as opening out the story possibilities – in the third book, we’ll get our first glimpse into one of the other Pirate Academies.


Writing for a younger readership, my wonderful editor Anne McNeil and I have worked hard on clarity. Anne was concerned about the readability of the Headcaptain’s surname – Kuo. I have always pronounced this Quo (as in Status), no problem! But I’m well used to hearing young people call him Commodore Ku-o, which is fine. Anne encouraged me to minimise uses of his name in Pirate Academy, so quite often he is referred to instead as the Commodore or the Headcaptain. Bringing in new characters — like Mayday Salt or Doll Darkwater — it was far easier to ensure ease of pronunciation from the outset.


I also had cause to regret giving Jasmine the surname Peacock. It works just fine until the moment you bring her pirate captain parents into the story, and you’re faced with the fact they are “Captain Peacock”, which for me – as a child of the 70s – takes me back to the sit-com Are You Being Served? Not ideal. But again, there are solutions. Jasmine’s mum is generally referred to as Captain Parker Ripley Peacock, her dad as Captain Jonathan Peacock, which hopefully ensures adult readers do not have unwanted visions of Grace Brothers Department Store!


Another potential problem is that the Academy takes students aged seven and trains them until the age of 17. This means that the Year 1 students are aged 7-8, Year 2 is ages 8-9 etc. And yes, I had made specific reference to these year groups in Vampirates. Quite obviously, this system does not correlate with schools in the UK, USA or Australia so it’s potentially confusing and distracting for readers. Jacoby, Jasmine and Neo are all eleven and in Year 5. My solution here was to give every year group a maritime-inspired nickname. The Year 5 class is therefore usually referred to as Barracuda Class. In Pirate Academy, we also see students from the older years and they are referred to simply as Stingrays or Hammerheads. This works well, I think, and adds to the unique, nautical vibe of the school.


All in all, I’ve found that where there are challenges, there are also creative and often fun solutions. Going back to John Boyne’s note, it is risky and exhilarating in equal measure – which, on balance, feels just about right for a series called Pirate Academy!

*Header image from Pirate Academy by Justin Somper, published by UCLan;

all images courtesy of Justin Somper



Justin Somper lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his husband. A meditation guide and wellbeing coach, he is also the award-winning author of the Vampirates books. The first book in his new series, Pirate Academy: New Kid on Deck, is out now. When he’s not writing, Justin enjoys refreshing dips in the Indian Ocean, inspiring visits to lighthouses and long-overdue sailing lessons.


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1 comment:

  1. From swashbuckling action to mysterious treasures, Pirate Academy is a thrilling adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. But amidst the excitement lies a cautionary tale about the dangers of wielding words and the consequences that follow. A must-read for all aspiring writers!
    awesome article thank you sir
    gk questions


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