All at Sea: Pirates, Merfolk and Sea Creatures at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books

May 6, 2022 | Wendy B.

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From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Little Mermaid, storytellers have always found adventure and enchantment in the ocean. In the Osborne Collection's spring exhibit, All at Sea: Pirates, Merfolk and Sea Creatures in Children's Books, you can set sail for Treasure Island, encounter terrifying (and friendly) sea serpents, and explore the seashore with Victorian scientists, all without leaving the library.

The exhibit runs from May 2 to July 16, 2022 at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (located on the 4th floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch). This companion post gives a sneak peek — or a quick recap if you missed it — of some of the books displayed in the exhibit.

Oil painting of a boy daydreaming over a book against a backdrop of a pirate battle at sea.
Imagination by N. C. Wyeth, 1922


Freedom, danger, adventure: what's not to love about pirate stories? Here's your chance to explore some of the Osborne Collection's own pirate treasure:

Treasure Island

Treasure Island in Young Folks Magazine. Inner page of large tabloid format magazine with fine print and black-and-white illustrations.

Cast your eye on the first-ever published chapter of Treasure Island! Serialized in Young Folks magazine in 1881 under the pseudonym Captain George North, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story was a flop at first. (It took second billing to a story about an alligator.) It wasn't until the publication of the first edition of Treasure Island in book form, also included in the exhibit, that Stevenson started to see commercial success. It has since become one of the most-adapted works of fiction in English. Treasure Island is responsible for many of our ideas about pirates – including peg legs, parrots and maps where X marks the spot.

Penny Dreadfuls

The Red Rover Library: The Vengeance of Blackbeard. Worn penny dreadful magazine with image of pirates fighting on the cover.

Penny Dreadfuls were sensationalistic stories, published serially. They were designed to appeal to working-class readers of nineteenth-century England. The dangerous yet romantic pirate, seeking fortune and adventure at sea, was a popular penny dreadful anti-hero. The Osborne Collection has a large selection of these publications, including over 40 pirate-themed penny dreadfuls. (And fans of Taika Waititi's latest TV series, Our Flag Means Death, may be interested to discover an earlier take on the character of Blackbeard.)

Pirate tales

Come Away from the Water  Shirley

Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham

Pirate stories are often as much about kids' fantasies of freedom and adventure as they are about the pirates themselves. In this charming picture book, author and illustrator John Burningham presents a family’s day at the English seaside from two perspectives. Pages on the left tell one story through words of instruction to Shirley from her parents on the shore. On the right, images show Shirley’s imaginative adventures with pirates at sea. You can borrow a print version of this book



Sometimes dangerous, sometimes helpful, always mysterious: merfolk reflect the preoccupations of the times and places where their stories are told. 

The Little Mermaid

Originally published in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a classic merfolk tale. Andersen drew on traditional folktales about merfolk and nymphs when writing it. In Andersen’s story, the little mermaid is motivated by her desire for an immortal soul, but some modern adaptations focus on her desire for love and life on land. 

The Sea Witch is depicted in this image as a youngish woman with a mermaid's tale, glaring intently at the viewer with a frog resting on the back of her hand and eels wrapping around her torso and arms.

Detail from Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen, edited by Edric Vredenburg.

This 1902 collection of Andersen's fairy tales includes the striking image of the Sea Witch shown above. The little mermaid transforms her fishtail into legs with help from the Sea Witch, but the spell comes at a heavy cost: the mermaid loses her beautiful voice and risks turning into sea foam if she does not marry the prince. Portrayals of the Sea Witch vary between adaptations; she is alternately monstrous, beautiful, old and young.

You can read this book online in our Digital Archive.

Inuit sea spirits

In Inuit oral tradition, sea spirits have many forms and names. They differ between Inuit communities across the Arctic. Some spirits are foes, like the qalupaliit who drag children under the ice. Others are respected figures, like the sea goddess Sedna who controls hunters’ access to seal, walrus, fish and whale.

Sedna packing doll

Packing Sedna doll designed by Peeteekootee Ugyuk and created by Joanne Mannilaq

The legend of how Sedna became a sea goddess is told throughout the Arctic. There are regional variations but in all versions, a young woman becomes the mother of all sea creatures. This packing Sedna was designed by Peeteekootee Ugyuk of Taloyoak. The doll is individually handcrafted of 100% duffel at Taluq Designs and is signed in Inuit script by the artisan, Joanne Mannilaq.

Metamorphic mermaid manuscript

Watercolour illustration of a merman with a colourful tail.

This hand-made book is from the early 19th century. The pages are cut and folded so that each image transforms as the flaps unfold. The transformations include a man to a mermaid (shown above), a lion to a griffin, and a soldier to a skeleton. A handwritten verse at the top of the mermaid page reads:

Eve in her Virgin blush arrayed
Her face More fair her smile’s are freer but
Would you see a stranger maid
Turn down the Leaf and you shall see her.


Sea creatures

Victorian science books

Sea and its Wonders

The Sea and its Wonders by Mary & Elizabeth Kirby

For many kids, exploring the seashore is a gateway to a lifetime of fascination with science. Children's authors from the Victorian era to the present have written books encouraging this interest. We're exhibiting 200 years' worth of science books on everything from seashells to diving bells.

Sea monsters

Convalescence - Sea Serpent

Detail from Convalescence by Juliana H. Ewing, illustrated by Walter Crane

No exhibit about the sea would be complete without sea serpents! Here's one of many on display. Published in 1885, Convalescence is a religious tract/picture book about the courage to tolerate weakness. A child recovering from a lengthy illness meets a retired sea captain and asks about his past adventures. (On the following page, the captain admits that he has never seen a sea serpent.) You can read this book online in our Digital Archive


Learn more

The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen edited by Maria Tatar

Inuit Myths and Legends: website created by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly


Post adapted from All at Sea: Pirates, Merfolk and Sea Creatures (2022), curated by Wendy Banks, Roberta Duarte and Myrna Scully-Ashton. All at Sea features content from Pirate Adventures and Mermaid Tales (2007), curated by Martha Scott.