Review: A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story

Both Raine and Breeze didn't work too well with the Language Arts program of Sonlight and Bookshark, so we were looking for a better alternative. Raine found her groove with Apologia's Writers in Residence this year (more on this in a separate post). Breeze was a little more difficult to pin down. When I got a PDF sampler of A Pirate's Guide t' th' Grammar of Story, Breeze's interest was piqued. She liked pirates, and the way the story was woven into the exercises looked fun. I was delighted when we were sent a copy in exchange for a fair review.

Pirate Breeze working on her Pirate book

A Pirate's Guide is written by Captain Yogger Le Fossa, the jellybean-munching, story-loving captain of a pirate ship completely crewed by monkeys. You (or in this case, Breeze) are magically transported into Captain La Fossa's ship, where you are taken captive, made to scrub the decks, and trained to become an infamous story-makin' pirate. Captain Le Fossa's first mate, Manfred, a well-spoken monkey, handles all the creative writing training, and Le Fossa occasionally checks in. After working out on deck (the captain believes in exercise), all the crew sit down for lessons on "t' grammar of story"--the basics of making a story. And if you don't want to do the hard work, you can always walk the plank.

A Pirate's Guide t' th' Grammar of Story is a creative writing curriculum that helps break down the story process into tangible, doable steps

The story unfolds as you go through the book. Before you go through each set of exercises, you read a chapter of the story (which are aptly numbered "Chapter Aye, Chapter Aye-Aye" and so on). The exercises also build on the previous ones; you move from mindstorming to setting, values, rules, backstory, characterization, plot, character arc, and the like.

This book actually requires a lot of work, something the Captain himself says, "It ain't easy becomin' a story-makin' pirate...yer tiny trooper will most likely break down and whine like a baby monkey, sayin' "This be too hard," "I can't do this," or "Why do I have to do every exercise?" Of course it be hard! Most likely thay be tryin' t' get out of doing th' werk we we have fer them...Creative werk can be exhausting!"

The letter from Captain Le Fossa, explaining how your child has been kidnapped and will now be made to learn story-makin' on board a pirate ship.

A letter from the publishers, sort of decoding Le Fossa's writing.

At the start, Breeze was eager to do her Pirate book work. She would even put on her bandanna pirate-style. She loves reading the story chapters, and when she's in the mood, she enjoys the exercises. One thing about Breeze, though, is that she isn't too keen on writing, especially if she has to do it legibly (which I require her to do when she's writing for school) and for long.  A Pirate's Guide has a lot of exercises as you go through the different concepts. For example, when talking about the setting, Breeze had to list down five places she went every day; four places she would rather be now; four places where there is water; two places where there is no water; three places she felt safe; and four places she would like to explore. Then the exercise went on to description of setting. She had to give three samples of a place, selected words that would describe the place, and then use them in a sentence. And after that, there were more lists to fill in: choose three places, and then describe the place in more detail. The next page had a list of 13 places that she had to make more specific. At that point I had a real Pirate mutiny!

Some of the exercises from the book

I had to step back and take stock. We took some weeks off, mostly because of the Christmas holidays, and then our move, but because I wanted to give Breeze a break in the hope that she would enjoy the curriculum again. I realized that I may have been expecting too much from her. She may be advanced in other areas, and she loves creating stories, but she's only 7 years old, after all (the book is recommended for ages 8 and up). Le Fossa recommends working on the book for just 20 minutes, two to three times a week, but I had been pushing her to work beyond that so we could finish the book this school year. Bad teacher moment.

So now, we still do A Pirate's Guide twice a week, but we do only a maximum of two pages, whether or not the exercise takes more than that. I also volunteer to be her secretary, and I write down her ideas and answers. Finally, I don't make her fill in all the blanks; we do about half (this one is hard for me, because I'm the type who needs to do everything by the book, and I need to get all those blanks filled).

I hope that taking it slowly wins Breeze back to the curriculum. I really like A Pirate's Guide because I love how the story writing process is broken down into concrete steps. I like how the book really guides you through getting the nitty-gritty down on paper. I think it's a good discipline to have, setting down your ideas rather than just charging off and attempting to write a story (like I do--and I rarely finish anything. Hmm. I should go through the book myself).  Plus I think the way the pirate story is woven through the entire books is pretty cool.

One thing I'm not too keen on though is the fact that the book is just so plain. I think it could have been livened up a bit with some illustrations here and there, or if there was some variety in the format. From start to finish, it's all black text on white pages, mostly numbered lists. I mean I love lists. I love that there is a finite number of items you can list down, but the pages look so monotonous, and perhaps that's what Breeze feels. The narrow margins all around don't help either. I really think that some variety to the layout and design would help make the book look and feel less boring and tedious.

I figure we will not be able to finish the book by the end of our school year--and that's OK. At this point, I think that getting her love of creating stories back is more important, and A Pirate's Guide is there to help build her foundation when she's ready. We'll keep at it, even if it extends into third grade. I really believe both the book and Breeze have the potential to work well together.

The enthusiasm that I would love to recapture



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