Storytime: Oceans

I celebrated my 30th anniversary with my husband in Kauai, where we spent a lot of time in the ocean, whether snorkeling or wading or tide-pooling or riding boats up and down the Napali coast. We saw a whale breach . . .

. . . and dolphins racing our boat, a white and black eel slithering out of a hole and turtles hanging suspended in turquoise waves.

It was amazing. The ocean is amazing. I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, and made a few trips to the gulf where the ocean is warmer, and browner, but there are still shells to find and waves to send your boogie board sailing and who knows what incredible things swimming out there between you and that far line of the horizon. I hope these books give you a salty taste, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see an ocean soon, too.

Granny and Bean by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Charlotte Voake

Granny and Bean go to the beach, a simple love story. It’s a cold beach, they’re wearing coats and hats and their cheeks chafe red, but they don’t care. They let the waves crash over their boots, sing, greet dogs, leap over logs, and share “tea.” Bean eats a banana and Grandma has a cupcake, and then they sort their best shells and a stone before going home.

I love so many things about this book. I love that Grandma is the one eating a cupcake, and she’s the kind of Grandma who doesn’t mind the cold or the wet as long as she’s with her sweet Bean. Bean never grumbles, content with his Grandma, “their hats blowing free, their hair in a tumble.” Ah, the words. The world. Yes, I’m a Grandma with my own sweet little bean, and while I don’t live near the beach, we find our own places to roam and with my bean by my side, the world is sweet.

Fetch by Jorey Hurley

With one word per page we follow the story of a dog chasing his ball on the beach and into the ocean. Perfect for the very young, it has pictures that beg the reader to tell “more of the story” as the child is ready for it. It also introduces us to the waters off the coast of California (we learn in the author’s note) as we see what’s underneath the dog while he swims after his ball. Rock fish, a kelp forest, and even a shark are on spreads that require the book to be turned on its side to appreciate the long, vertical pictures that show the world deep below the water.

Anyone that’s watched a dog retrieve a ball over and over again will recognize the lengths this dog is willing to go to get the ball back, and appreciate the last spread. The dog sets his ball down and cocks his head as we read the simple word, “again?” I have a dog that is (sometimes) ball crazy and I love a good beach story. I also love finding books that use spare text to tell a good story that resonates whether you’re a child or an adult. And this artist, her simple pictures are so nice (go check out her website and instagram-delightful).

Blue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes

The short, simple rhymes in this book paint a picture even without the beautiful illustrations. And though the text never talks about the ocean, the pictures show a darling white house on a high cliff overlooking the sea. What’s it about, you ask? It’s layered, like the words.

Cotton clouds.

Morning light.

Blue on blue.

White on white.

There are so many layers, more and more the longer you look. We see a picture of blue sky over blue waters (blue on blue) and white clouds floating over the white house (white on white). It’s about being outside on a sunny day when the weather changes,

Gray on gray.

Dark and glooming.

Black on black.

Storm is looming.

While it rains we see a child hiding under the covers when it thunders, a baby crying, the same child at the table with head in hands, pigs in a sty and horses in a stable . . . and then the sun comes back out and there is glorious mud to play in. The child makes “mud angels” instead of snow angels and the day ends with a good bath and bedtime as a whale leaps in the sea. It’s about how the world is big and beautiful and sunny and stormy, but after storms, goodness waits. Brilliantly, the pace slows as fewer words appear on a page, causing us to slow down, pausing to look at the pictures. It inspires me to slow down and look at the world around me, too, just like the ocean.

If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

I pretty much love any book by this pair (see April’s pick, And Then It’s Spring). The style, the tone, the wry humor and deeper layers, quirky and simple . . . they’re pretty much brilliant. We’re told if we want to see a whale, we’ll need a window, and an ocean, and, most importantly, “time for waiting, and time for looking, and time for wondering ‘is that a whale?’” A child sits on a long-legged stool, his long-eared dog on the floor beside him, and they wait and watch together.

The book becomes more fantastical as the boy’s chair floats out to sea (but not a chair that’s too comfy, because, “sleeping eyes can’t watch for whales and whales won’t wait for watching.”) I should just type up the whole book because half the joy is reading how Fogliano stitches her words together. The other half is the illustrations . . . get your hands on this book!

We wait, and wait, not paying attention to roses or boats that could have pirates in them or pelicans or “something inching, small and green across the leaf.” After all that waiting, the next to last spread shows the boy in his little rowboat with his dog, out to sea, and a giant humpback beneath them, and then the satisfying last spread shows the tip of the whale’s nose popping up, right in front of the boat. So much to talk about, like what is there that we aren’t seeing, and is waiting worth it? It is when it’s a whale!

Over and Under the Waves by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

A girl paddles with her mom, sharing a boat as they follow her dad out into the ocean and readers are introduced to over 20 ocean animals and plants, some under the water and some over. There is the watery world beneath their boat, where kelp bass hunt and “anchovies play follow-the-leader in a shimmering silver school,” and there’s the world above where sea lions bark and shorebirds “swoop and soar.” I love the changes of perspective, sometimes looking down on the kayak from the sky, or seeing it slip across the top of the page as pale moon jellies float below.

Messner nails the experience of being in a kayak on the ocean, the excitement of seeing a spray of mist and paddling out to see if you can catch sight of the whale, waiting, it’s time to go, and then WHOOSH! The whale breaches, such a thrill. Then it’s back to shore, as an octopus glides beneath them, changing colors to blend in with the rocks, and striped sea perch circle the pilings of a wharf. When what we can see may seem to be unchanging (water, water, and more water), it’s wonderful to imagine all the things going on that we can’t see. And the book ends with my idea of a perfect day, the sun setting, complete with “wave-wobbly legs and paddle-sore arms.” If you like this one, Messner has a whole series of Over and Under books (the snow, the pond, the rainforest, the canyon, and the dirt).

Wave by Suzy Lee

The orientation of this book is long and thin . . . like a wave rolling in, stretching across the sand. It’s a beautiful wordless book where a girl and some gulls watch the waves, run from them, roar at them, and splash exuberantly into them. Eventually they get chased and knocked down in a long, double page blue splashy spread, and then get to work in the wet sand, gathering treasure the wave deposited. Can you make friends with the ocean? Absolutely.

If you’d like a cumulative list of the picture books I’ve recommended, you can find it at my Picture Book shop on, where every purchase supports independent bookstores. I do received a small commission if books are purchased through my link.

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