The GOQ List: Ten Kids’ Books About the Sea

The Top Ten Kids’€™ Books About the Sea

There’€™s nothing quite so contentious as a list.

So tonight, as the full moon settles over the bay and weary kids are plucked out of the water, wrapped in towels and ushered into bed, a topic arrives unbidden, like the lapping of the tide.  Kids’€™ books. Kids’€™ books about the sea. The best ones seem to bridge the gap from the waking world to the world of children’€™s dreams. In the sea, anything is possible. The droning voice of the exhausted adult on the foot of the bed ushers in a realm of magical possibility’€¦ if only the adult can reach the end without likewise crashing out.

1. Eric Carle, Mister Seahorse

Eric Carle was the genius who brought us The Very Hungry Caterpillar way back in 1969, in which hole-punched and cutaway pages came to resemble the evidence of the caterpillar’€™s eating spree. His cut-paper collages are instantly recognisable. A generation after the caterpillar became a butterfly, in Mister Seahorse he not only tackles the curious reproductive habits of the seahorse, but uses clear plastic interleaves between pages to represent the hidey-holes of all sorts of sea creatures ‘€“ the stickleback, the tilapia, the pipefish and more.

2. Lucy Cousins, Hooray for Fish!

This one’€™s aimed at tiny people ‘€“ it’€™s a fantasy and a rhyme, vividly illustrated with gloopy paintings of ridiculous fish: hairy fish, scary fish, fly fish, sky fish. The lettering is done in big, hand-drawn script. Of all the fish that the little fish encounters, ‘€œthe one that I love the best’€ of course, turns out to be Mum Fish. Can’€™t argue with that.

3. Jo Rothwell, My Great Ocean Road Adventure

Okay, disclosure time: we love this one because it covers the coast that’€™s GOQ’€™s home. Made as part of a series of ‘€œadventure’€ books about various parts of Australia. In this story, Harry and his wombat Nelly follow a message in a bottle from Geelong to Port Fairy, encountering shipwrecks, surfers, fishermen and’€¦dinosaurs ‘€“ squeezing them all into a little red car. And there’€™s a nice little appendix at the end with some facts about each of the towns along the road.

4. Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

At home on any list, this is a colossus in children’€™s literature. Barely any child grows up without encountering Max in his wolf suit. But is it a book about the sea? We think so. Although his bedroom is overgrown by forest (which is probably reason enough in itself not to misbehave), the real rumpus doesn’€™t get going until Max goes to sea: ‘€œand an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day.’€

5. Alison Lester, Magic Beach

Absolute beach frontage – God knows how many real estate fantasies this book engendered in the adults who’€™ve read it to their kids. Have a look at the vista from the master bedroom on the second-last page: this joint would sell itself! The drawings are indeed magical, and Alison Lester has somehow captured the private world of make-believe in which kids on summer holidays will always enshroud themselves.

6. Graeme Base, The Sign Of the Seahorse

A little bit like Eric Carle, it would seem wrong somehow not to have Graeme Base in such a list. Although Animalia remains his best-known work, the level of detail, the layers, the secret semiotics of a Base book are wonderful to behold. The verse is complex and lively, the drawing sumptuous and the classical undersea battle between good and evil make this book a standout for a wide range of ages.

7. Julia Donaldson, The Snail and the Whale

The tale ‘€œof a snail and great big grey blue humpback whale’€ is a clear winner for the irresistible pull of its verse. The rhythm of this wee snail’€™s adventure story is incredibly addictive. And Alex Scheffler draws easily the best bad-guy sharks. There’€™s a nice moral to this story too: the humble snail dares to dream, despite the scoffing of his fellow molluscs. And he winds up having one gigantic adventure as a result.

8. Gene Zion, Harry By The Sea

This little classic was written back in 1965. The drawings, both in their subject matter and their palette of colours, depict a bygone era ‘€“ the hats, the bathers, even the sunglasses on the beachgoers are strikingly retro. Harry’€™s a plucky little mutt. Even when he’€™s under the seaweed, being pursued by dog-catchers armed with pointy sticks, you can’€™t help feeling he’€™s going to come up trumps. But hey, a three-year-old could tell you that.

9. Linda Ashman, To the Beach!

It’€™s as universal as beach holidays themselves – the panic-stricken process of packing and driving. While kids revel in the unbridled joy of heading to a faraway coast, the adults fume and bicker over forgotten items and time pressures. It’€™s all here ‘€“ the toddler bawling over the misplaced bucket (for crying out loud ‘€“ it’€™s a BUCKET, kid!), the traffic snarls, the dehydrated family pooch, and in a crowning final irony, the thunderstorm that sweeps away the sunshine. Summer schadenfreude on tap.

10. Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found

Hmm, should’€™ve done this list from ten back to one. This might be a favourite. The poignant tale of a small boy who encounters a lost penguin and sails him home across the southern ocean’€¦ only to find that the penguin wants to stay with him. Somewhere near the middle of the book there’€™s a double page spread of the tiny boat with its two occupants, adrift under the stars on a huge swell. Incredibly beautiful. Read this to a small person and there’€™s a fair chance you’€™ll both wind up in tears.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 17, 2014


    Lost and Found is an incredibly special book. I never get tired of reading it to my small people. “That night, the boy couldn’t sleep for disappointment.” One of the best lines ever.

    My Sister Sif is another amazing watery tale for kids by Ruth Park. Made me wish so much for a mermaids tail.

Leave a Reply