Hakai Magazine

A detail from the cover illustration by Markus Motum for his book Ducks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans. Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press

Fourteen New Coastal Kids’ Books to Entertain and Inspire Readers of All Ages

This season’s selections feature guessing games, solutions to plastic pollution, and some gnarly narwhals.

Authored by

by Raina Delisle

Article body copy

On October 23, residents of Victoria, British Columbia—where I live and Hakai Magazine is based—watched in horror as smoke billowed from a cargo ship off the coast. As the news reports rolled in, we learned that the ship had hit a severe storm, more than 100 containers had gone overboard, and several more were on fire. The containers were packed with consumer goods like Christmas decorations, clothing, and toys, as well as chemicals used in mining, all from China and South Korea.

It seemed like a tableau representing everything that’s wrong in our world. The ship was carrying containers full of cheaply made stuff that likely won’t last long (not to mention those pesky mining chemicals) to our shores in the midst of a global supply chain breakdown due to an ongoing global pandemic to meet the insatiable demands of our consumerist society. Then the ship got pummeled by a so-called bomb-cyclone, the likes of which are becoming more common due to climate change. And now many of those containers were sinking or burning, polluting the environment in the midst of the climate crisis.

Then I heard about the children’s books.

Neatly stacked in one of the containers aboard the cargo ship were 15,000 nonfiction books from Orca Book Publishers, which publishes many coastal titles featured in these biannual roundups and is publishing my first book, all about ethical fashion. In a release, Orca said it wasn’t sure of the fate of the books and it had recently decided to move most of its printing to Canada. “Politically, socially, environmentally we are endeavouring to match our printing decisions more closely to our overall mandate and goals,” publisher Andrew Wooldridge said in the release.

Making decisions that are in line with our political, social, and environmental goals is something we should all endeavor to do. For instance, buying books rather than plastic toys as gifts for kids this holiday season may hit the mark. They’re entertaining, educational, and can be passed along for generations.

Many of the characters in these 14 new kids’ books also make decisions with such goals in mind, from the video game–obsessed kid who decides to clean up ocean plastic to save the planet in An Earth-Bot’s Solution to Plastic Pollution to Benny the black Lab who sniffs shipping containers for illegal wildlife products in Conservation Canines: How Dogs Work for the Environment. Share them with the young readers in your life—you never know what may light their fire (in a good way).

cover image of Ducks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our OceansDucks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans
Text and illustrations by Markus Motum
32 pp. Candlewick Press

Unfortunately, hundreds of shipping containers spill into the sea every year. Perhaps the most famous mishap was in 1992, when a container from China destined for the United States tumbled into the Pacific Ocean, releasing 28,000 rubber duckies. The iconic bright-yellow bath toys caught the currents, which carried them all over the world. In Ducks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans, a picture book for readers in grades two to five, we meet one of them and hear all about its adventure. Told from the perspective of the duck, and accompanied by breakout facts about plastic and the ocean, this story takes us from the factory in China, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to the beach, and then finally into the home—and the bath—of a loving family. Simple illustrations in bright primary colors depict the bounty of life and garbage beneath the waves. Ducks Overboard! is a compelling read that engages kids in the plastic problem and encourages them to find solutions.

Cover of An Earth-Bot’s Solution to Plastic PollutionAn Earth-Bot’s Solution to Plastic Pollution
Text and illustrations by Russell Ayto
40 pp. Kids Can Press

Speaking of finding solutions, in An Earth-Bot’s Solution to Plastic Pollution, we meet Neo, a video game–obsessed kid who lives next to the ocean. Neo is so busy defending Earth against aliens by chucking cabbages at them in his favorite video game that he can’t see the real invasion just outside his door: plastic pollution! That all changes when ocean animals show up, pleading for him to help them clean up their home. With an offbeat storyline, quirky characters, and graphic illustrations reminiscent of early video games, this book offers a unique take on the plastic problem. An Earth-Bot’s Solution to Plastic Pollution is a refreshing read that inspires kids to focus outward rather than inward and work together to tackle real issues off the screens.

cover of The Sun Shines on the SeaThe Sun Shines on the Sea
Text and illustrations by Michael Slack
20 pp. Candlewick Press

When the sun shines on the sea, phytoplankton soak up the rays and grow, only to be munched up by krill, which are then inhaled by a shoal of fish and so on up the marine food chain. The Sun Shines on the Sea introduces preschoolers to the concept of the food chain by taking them underwater to meet squid, tuna, a shark, and a whale—and find out who eats whom. But just when kids think the whale is going to eat the shark, it surprises them by scooping up a cloud of krill, showing them that sometimes those at the top of the food chain feed on those at the bottom. With vibrant illustrations of cute creatures that seem to be smiling whether they’re eating or being eaten, as well as fun flaps that reveal what lies in their bellies, this board book will keep little ones engaged in a subject that’s usually reserved for science class.

cover of Heads and Tails UnderwaterHeads and Tails Underwater
Text and illustrations by John Canty
32 pp. Candlewick Press

In Heads and Tails Underwater, author/illustrator John Canty gives preschoolers creative clues and glimpses of creatures’ back ends to inspire them to guess who’s who—“I am a fish with a horse-like face. My daddy carried me in his pouch when I was a baby. I am a …” From sea stars that can regrow their arms to jellyfish that don’t have brains, Canty pulls out the coolest facts about each species. Big letters in colored text encourage kids to follow along and work on their reading, while illustrations that marry watercolors and 19th-century scientific illustrations inspire an appreciation for the beauty beneath the waves. Heads and Tails Underwater is an engaging and interactive book sure to entertain and delight kids and adults alike.

cover of The Strangest Thing in the SeaThe Strangest Thing in the Sea
Text by Rachel Poliquin
Illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler
32 pp. Kids Can Press

“Dancing feathers. Goblin teeth. See-through heads.” Oh my! The Strangest Thing in the Sea, another guessing picture book, teaches readers ages seven to 10 about a dozen of the most curious creatures dwelling in the deep. Each character introduces itself to readers with an imaginative description of its appearance, alongside a fantastical artistic depiction (think a barreleye fish as an alien spaceship), and asks if they think it’s the strangest thing in the sea. Kids then open the gatefold to reveal the animal’s identity and learn all kinds of cool facts about it, including if it is, in fact, the strangest thing in the sea. The Strangest Thing in the Sea is an artistic and educational achievement that encourages kids to discover the wonders of the deep.

cover of Narwhal’s School of AwesomenessNarwhal’s School of Awesomeness
Text and illustrations by Ben Clanton
80 pp. Penguin Random House

The lovable duo of Narwhal and Jelly is back for more adventures in the sixth installment in their eponymous bestselling graphic novel series for readers ages six to nine. In Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness, which features author/illustrator Ben Clanton’s trademark cute and quirky illustrations in blues and yellows, Narwhal and Jelly spy a school of fish on their way to school. But when the fish arrive, their teacher, Mr. Blowfish, is about to blow: he has a cold and class is cancelled. Narwhal and Jelly jump in to substitute and hilarity ensues as they put their own spin on classroom classics like math, science, and writing. The fish (appropriately named Fin, Finneas, Finbar, Finch, Finnegan, Finnard, Finnie, Finley, and Delfina) offer readers a lesson in language arts as they speak in synonyms, making this book a delight to read aloud. “Delectable! Delicious! Scrumptious! Toothsome! Flavorful! Yummy! Palatable! Divine! Tasty!” they respond in turn after a taste of Narwhal’s favorite snack of waffles. The science lessons are also packed with real facts, like how a group of sharks is called a shiver and how male seahorses can give birth to more than 1,000 babies at once. Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness is a fun, fast-paced read that will have kids and adults alike laughing out loud.

cover of Little Narwhal, Not AloneLittle Narwhal, Not Alone
Text by Tiffany Stone
Illustrations by Ashlyn Anstee
44 pp. Greystone Kids

Now for another narwhal: Little Narwhal longs to roam, so he sets off on his own but soon finds himself far from home and all alone. In Little Narwhal, Not Alone, little readers join the curious whale on an exciting—and at times terrifying—adventure to uncharted waters. While searching for fellow narwhals, he spots a pod of belugas and tries to befriend them but quickly discovers that they don’t speak the same language or eat the same food as him. But when they discover a shared passion for play, they become fast friends. This picture book for kids ages four to eight features expressive, cartoon-like characters in aquamarine, action-packed scenes, and poetic prose printed on the pages in waves: “They look like him—or close enough—though no one sports a twisty tusk.” The book is based on a true story, which is summarized at the end in a note from a marine biologist. Little Narwhal, Not Alone is a touching tale of overcoming obstacles, accepting one another, and finding common ground—or common water—despite our differences.

cover of Grandfather Bowhead, Tell Me A StoryGrandfather Bowhead, Tell Me A Story
Text by Aviaq Johnston
Illustrations by Tamara Campeau
28 pp. Inhabit Media

Attention, grandparents! Grandfather Bowhead, Tell Me A Story is the sweetest story you could share with your grandchild this season. In this heartwarming picture book, Little Arvaaq (which means “nursing bowhead calf” in Inuktitut) asks his grandfather a series of questions about all the wonderful things he’s seen and done in his 200 years in the ocean. (Scientists think bowhead whales are the longest-lived mammals on the planet.) Grandfather Bowhead responds with incredible tales of beauty and wonder but always reminds Little Arvaaq that nothing compares to the joy he gets from his grandson. “I’ve seen the northern lights running across the vast sky, but they do not compare to the wonder of your very first breath.” Painterly illustrations in a palette of blues adds to the calm, dreamy tone of the book. Grandfather Bowhead, Tell Me A Story is a powerful, emotive book that beautifully articulates a grandfather’s love for his grandson.

cove of Hope at Sea: An Adventure StoryHope at Sea: An Adventure Story
Text and illustrations by Daniel Miyares
44 pp. Anne Schwartz Books

And now for dads of daughters: in Hope at Sea: An Adventure Story, young Hope decides she’s heard enough stories from her sailor father—she wants to be part of them. So she stows away in his 19th-century merchant vessel. Hope’s fears that her father will be mad at her melt away as he embraces her as a member of the crew and teaches her the tricks of the trade—tying knots, reading the stars, and even giving the ship a name (Hope Shines) and painting it on the hull. Hope is having the adventure of a lifetime until a storm descends on them, putting them to the ultimate test. Simple yet descriptive text from Hope’s perspective allows the detailed, lifelike drawings to tell much of this tale for kids ages four to eight: “I can hear the sails snap to attention and salute the wind as we pick up speed.” Hope at Sea is a sweet sea story of adventure, love, and resilience that shows that work should never capsize family.

cover of Orca Rescue!: The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named SpringerOrca Rescue!: The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer
Text by Donna Sandstrom
Illustrations by Sarah Burwash
144 pp. Kids Can Press

In 2002, people spotted a young female killer whale swimming alone in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington. Researchers soon discovered that the whale was a two-year-old orphan named Springer who had been separated from her family in Canada, more than 480 kilometers away, but that was only the beginning of the story. In Orca Rescue!: The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer, Donna Sandstrom, a killer whale advocate who was involved in the rescue effort, tells the captivating tale of how Springer made it home. In this illustrated book for children ages eight to 12, Sandstrom shares insider details about the rescue (like how a young boy was the first to speak up and say Springer should be reunited with her family) and fun facts about killer whales (like how they have white marks called saddle patches that are as unique as fingerprints). Soothing watercolor illustrations in muted tones beautifully capture the events, while maps help readers put their fingers on where everything went down. Orca Rescue! is an inspiring story with memorable lessons about overcoming adversity, the power of teamwork, and the enduring strength of family ties.

cover of Conservation Canines: How Dogs Work for the EnvironmentConservation Canines: How Dogs Work for the Environment
Text and photos by Isabelle Groc
128 pp. Orca Book Publishers

Meet Dio, an Australian cattle dog that sniffs out southern resident killer whale poop to help researchers better understand how the animals are doing and how they can help them. In Conservation Canines: How Dogs Work for the Environment, author/photographer Isabelle Groc gives readers a chance to “shake a paw” with several four-legged heroes that are working in various jobs and environments around the world to help protect vulnerable species. This chapter book for readers ages nine to 12 explores the history of working dogs, what makes them so good at their jobs, and what we can do to help them. Adorable and action-packed photos of dogs on the job give readers a rare glimpse into their working lives. Conservation Canines is a fascinating exploration of how our best friends in the animal kingdom are helping us tackle some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, one sniff and one bark at a time.

cover of The AquanautThe Aquanaut
Text by Jill Heinerth
Illustrations by Jaime Kim
32 pp. Penguin Random House

Looking for a role model for the little explorer in your life? In The Aquanaut, kids meet Jill Heinerth, a Canadian cave diver, underwater explorer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who was once a little girl with a big imagination—and big ambitions. In this motivating picture book for readers ages three to seven, Heinerth shares how her childhood dreams came true-ish. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut, float through space, and see the moon up close. As an adult, she became an aquanaut and floats through the sea and sees moon jellies—and much, much more—up close. The story is creatively told by juxtaposing Heinerth’s relatable childhood hopes (like helping others) with her aspirational adult adventures (like freeing a sea turtle from a fishing net), complete with vibrant illustrations of her at different stages of her life. The Aquanaut is an inspiring read about an ocean hero that shows kids that anything is possible.

cover of Shark Bait!Shark Bait!
Text by Jeff Szpirglas and Danielle Saint-Onge
Illustrations by Dave Whamond
96 pp. Orca Book Publishers

Speaking of ambitious young adventurers, in Shark Bait!, a chapter book for kids ages six to eight, readers meet Orly, an aspiring shark researcher. When Orly and her family visit her grandmas in their seaside town for the summer, she packs fish heads to attract a great white shark named Delta who researchers are studying and her tablet so she can follow the shark’s every move using an app. When her parents put her in sailing camp, she gets up to all kinds of shenanigans as she tries to find Delta and help protect other endangered animals. But her persistence pays off and she ends up helping the researchers with a critical task. With snappy dialogue and lively illustrations, this book will keep kids engaged. Shark Bait! is an entertaining read that exposes kids to scientific research and technology in a way that will get them to “geek out.” An added bonus: the book normalizes queer people and relationships as Orly’s grandmas are a couple.

cover of Sink or SwimSink or Swim
Text by Tash McAdam
112 pp. Orca Book Publishers

Sink or Swim is another book that normalizes the LGTBQIA2S+ community. In this chapter book for kids aged 12-plus, anxious trans teen Bass reluctantly joins his adventurous girlfriend, Rosie, for a ride on a “borrowed” boat. But a sudden and severe storm destroys their boat, maroons them on a deserted island, and leaves them battered and bruised. The pair struggle to survive, but their plight pushes them closer together. Through a fast-paced, action-packed narrative, readers learn about the challenges of surviving inhospitable environments (finding food, water, shelter, and help) and the challenges of growing up trans (dealing with bullies, gender dysphoria, and tight, itchy trans tape). The writing is simple yet vivid and will resonate with the age group: “The ocean bullies him, forcing its way up his nose and down his throat.” Sink or Swim is a heart-pumping and heart-warming read about bravery, love, and acceptance along the sometimes-cruel coast.