Review: José and the Pirate Captain Toledano

José and the Pirate Captain Toledano

by Arnon Z. Shorr, illustrated by Joshua M. Edelglass

Kar-Ben Publishing (imprint of Lerner Publishing Group), 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Dena Bach

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José Alfaro is a smart, mischievous teen who has always felt different from those around him yet yearns to be like everyone else. Unlike other children in his time and place, 16th century in the Caribbean, his father made him learn to read, write, and speak several languages, and let him help with his work as the colonial treasurer.

Then the Spanish Inquisition comes, in the person of Captain de Guzman, who arrives in Santo Domingo to repair his ship after an attack by pirates. While there, de Guzman makes wager that he will uncover a heretic before his ship is repaired. When the heretic de Guzman finds is José’s father, José learns why he was raised to be different. José’s father tells him they are hidden Jews who fled the Inquisition in Portugal when he was just a baby. Escaping de Guzman just in time, José stows away on the aptly named Pirate Ship Laqish. There he is saved by, and in turns saves, the Pirate Captain Toledano, himself a hidden Jew.

An expansion of a 2017 short film directed by the author, this historical graphic novel maintains a quick pace, holding the reader’s attention. The twist of pirates as the good guys keeps the reader engaged, rooting for the pirates to win. Illustrator Edelglass ably uses graphic novel conventions to keep up this pace, using the film to inform the characters and costumes.

José and the Pirate Captain Toledano has everything a middle grade reader could ask for: action, adventure, pirates, challenges to overcome, and a satisfying ending. The book also has what the Sydney Taylor committee asks for: literary merit, positive and authentic Jewish religious and cultural content, authentic and accurate detail through research, even a capable, Jewishly knowledgeable illustrator. All in all, a rollicking read appropriate for the target age, presenting this less common story of Sephardic Jews, with an added touch of the diverse pirate crew and a sub-plot of the effects of colonization on native peoples.

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Reviewer Dena Bach has a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and an MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons University. Surrounded by books, she has worked as an illustrator, a writer, a bookkeeper, a bookseller, and a teacher of children from ages 2 to14. She is comfortable only when there is a large mountain of children’s books on her bedside table.


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