What books a child wants to read often reflects the TV they’re watching during the day, for better and worse. Whether it’s Paw PatrolDoc McStuffinsWild Kratts, or Octonauts, animal-themed shows are kind of the norm, and probably always have been. For little kids, you can’t really go wrong with talking animals (Bluey is a personal favorite). Naturally, when it comes to choosing bedtime reading, the berserk-ing hippos, whining llamas, dancing elephants, and parading pets are inescapable.

But if you have a 3- to 4-year-old, it’s worth introducing them to the world of buried treasure, sword fights, and pirates — specifically, a Very Persistent Pirate who shares his gold with the boy who plundered it. The illustrations have all the whimsy you’d expect in a children’s book, and the talking monkey and parrot are fun. But what makes this book stand out from the others is the way it manages to retell the parable of the prodigal son without heavy-handed didactics.

I’ve been reading this book periodically with my daughter over the last couple of weeks (her choice), and the book’s subtle allegory has slowly taken root with each read. The first time we read it, the barbecued squid was the highlight (animals again). The second time, it was the sword fight — “Why does he have a hook on his hand?” Perhaps my pirate voice was slowly improving, but the third read led to further reflection. Pictured sulking on a branch alone, the parrot thinks the pirate is being reckless with his treasure:

It just isn’t fair!

That kid and his monkey

Were terrible thieves,

Why do they get to dance and sing?

The question goes unanswered by the pirate and this absence provoked my daughter to ask me: “Why is the parrot so upset? And why is the pirate so nice?” It’s the quandary that lies at the beating heart of Christianity and its reckless forgiveness of sinners.

Children are incredibly observant, sometimes more so than adults. They’re incredible detectives like that and even better judges. If something is out of place they’ll say so, and they will let you know if there’s a hole in a story’s plot that needs to be filled in. The plot of The Very Persistent Pirate has a very large hole. There’s nothing fair about the pirate’s actions, and they don’t seem to make much sense. But this gap in the story is meant to be a doorway for further discussion.

Pirates and talking animals are wonderfully entertaining, but after closing the pages my daughter and I talked about grace, forgiveness, and generosity. And conversations like that are worth far more than the price of any book.

The Very Persistent Pirate is Mockingbird’s first (and only) children’s book, now available at a discounted price!