Captain Book sports an eye patch, parrot and spyglass, looking like a sailor on the hunt for treasure. But this pirate’s only goal is advancing children’s literacy.
The captain and his crew from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Encinitas have given away more than 100,000 free books to kids, a feat that San Diego County and the city of Encinitas recognized on Feb. 8 with proclamations and a special reception at the Encinitas Library.
"I had no idea the program would be this successful and perpetuate itself," said Morris Pike, an Encinitas resident who created and plays Captain Book. "It’s amazing."
Pike regularly steers the Good Ship Literacy, a repurposed ambulance decorated with pirate décor, to schools, hospitals and libraries to donate books to children throughout San Diego County. During hour-long shows, he sings the kids his pirate songs, recalls exciting things he learned while reading and gives out books tucked in handmade treasure chests.
"It’s been great fun because of course pirates are popular with children, and by entertaining them, they’re encouraged to read," Pike said.
In 2000, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Encinitas started distributing free books to kids. Kiwanis charter member Larry Marquardt constructed intricate treasure chests from discarded wood to hold the books, and not long after, Pike realized a pirate ought to go along with the chests. Forget Captain Hook — Captain Book was born.
Pike, 82, said he can’t believe that he’s been Captain Book for nearly 15 years. He noted age has slowed him down, but he’ll keep up his swashbuckling ways for as long as possible.
"Oftentimes I get up in the morning before a presentation and I go, ‘What is an 82-year-old man doing running around as a pirate? This is crazy.’ But when I visit with those kids, and we take the voyage into their imaginations with whales, orcas and other pirates lurking by, it’s just magic."
A retired teacher, Pike has seen firsthand how reading skills pave the way for educational success.
The program is geared toward Title 1 Schools, which have a higher percentage of children from low-income families.
"We try to reach kids who may not have access to many books," Pike said.
Pike said his passion for inspiring literacy goes back to his own struggles reading. He has dyslexia, but because he fell in love with books early on, he became a strong reader and writer. Pike eventually wrote, produced and directed scores of plays and sketches. Not to mention, he has penned three novels and holds a doctorate in theatre.
"Reading made my career successful, and that’s one reason I believe it’s just critically important that kids read."
In an age of iPads and other technology in the classroom, Pike said the kids appreciate interacting with Captain Book and his merry band of pirates. He, in turn, relishes the opportunity to improvise during the student shows given his theatre background.
Pike is hardly a one-man show — other Kiwanis Club pirates accompany him during presentations and others contribute behind the scenes. Volunteers help gather books for the program, most of which are donated.
The best part of the pirate shows is seeing the "light of imagination" in the kids’ faces, he said. Some of Pike’s favorite memories involve his magic spyglass, which he notes can look into the hearts of children. One time, a boy asked Pike to focus his magic spyglass on him because he was worried about hopping onto an airplane alone to Cleveland the following week.
"I was caught a little off guard, but I said ‘Oh, I see a brave boy who’s going to be just fine.’ He smiled grand and bounced off."
Visit www.captainbook.org to learn more or donate to the program. The website includes a letter from a child Captain Book and the other pirates visited.
"Thank you for making me interested in pirates. The most interesting fact I learned was that the most important treasure is not gold or jewels or anything like that. The most important treasure is knowledge," the letter states.
Also, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Encinitas is hosting a fundraiser at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 27 at the Encinitas Elks lodge that will help Captain Book and his crew carry out their mission. It will feature dinner, dancing, a silent auction and comedian Patti Phillips. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the door — RSVP by calling 619-507-2100 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.