It would be hard to understate just how appealing Tell No Tales is. Middle grade books can sometimes feel oddly paced or full of truncated dialog, but the last few years have seen a boom in entertainment aimed at kids but enjoyable for everyone. Tell No Tales is exactly that, a middle grade book about queer, mostly female, mostly Black and Indigenous pirates that has enough heart and humor to float even the most lead-filled heart.
Artist Kendra Wells’ career has been building steadily for years, perhaps most notably in their short comics for The Nib. Fans of Wells’ work will find Tell No Tales recognizable, but a distinct departure in tone and style; it’s gratifying to witness Wells demonstrate skills that readers haven’t gotten to see much before. The character designs are well-balanced, both individually and as a cast, and Wells’ particular talent with using facial expressions and body language to convey a wide rage of emotions is on full display. The backgrounds get a remarkable amount of attention too, rooting Tell No Tales firmly in time and place—even if the reader isn’t particularly familiar with the history of the Golden Age of Piracy.
It’s particularly gratifying to see how much trust Wells’ work has been given by collaborator Sam Maggs, who wrote the text featured in the book. Maggs and Wells have been very clear that they worked together on the story, and Maggs very clearly got out of the way of the art and let it do the important work of storytelling largely unencumbered by excessive dialog or exposition.
The craft and talent that went into making this book are clear, but the biggest draw is definitely the subject matter. The better part of two decades has passed since Pirates Of The Caribbean went from theme park ride to franchise juggernaut, and from the start, people have struggled with the storytelling gaps and historical failures of the films. Tell No Tales does what Pirates should have: It gives audiences a kid-friendly, queer, feminist pirate story devoted to providing historically oppressed characters with agency and depth. Wells and Maggs execute this remarkable feat with grace. The cast of characters draws from real-life people and historical records, building up a vision of pirates both as they really were and as they could have been. There’s an afterword that clarifies which parts of the book actually happened and which are lightly fictionalized by the creators, and it offers a vision of how history could and should be taught.
There’s a lot in Tell No Tales that could never be verified as having actually happened exactly in that exact manner. Nevertheless, the book gives readers a deeper and richer understanding of the golden age of piracy and the people who lived in it, including voices that are traditionally excluded from the historical record. It’s a version of history that’s more interested in holistic understanding and empathetic reading of historical records, and refuses to leave Black, Indigenous, female, and queer people behind. And if the exciting adventures of a queer, female pirate captain that’s based on historical fact wasn’t enough to draw readers in, there’s also an adorable polydactyl cat named Mackerel ready to steal their hearts.