“Earth’s Beating Heart”: 12 Coastal-Themed Books to Help Kids Grow Their Understanding and Empathy

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For the past several years, when I’ve asked my kids, now nine and 11, what they did at school on any given day, they’ve responded with a similar refrain:

“We played Prodigy in math.”

“We watched TV while we ate lunch.”

“We made iMovies in language arts.”

In other words, screens, screens, and more screens.

It’s no secret that screen time is increasing in schools, often at the expense of story time. And while the results of the research into the potential benefits and harms of technology in the classroom are all over the map, the evidence of the extensive benefits of reading is indisputable.

Not only does reading improve kids’ cognitive development, literary skills, concentration, and creativity, it also helps them gain a deeper understanding of the world, develop empathy for others, and build stronger bonds with the people with whom they read.

With kids often reading less in schools, it’s more important than ever to encourage them to pick up books at home, especially titles about important topics like the ocean, which, as author Rochelle Strauss puts it, is “Earth’s beating heart.”

To get you started, here are 12 new coastal-themed children’s books to captivate readers of all ages.


cover of I’m Thinking of an Ocean AnimalI’m Thinking of an Ocean Animal
Text by Adam Guillain and Charlotte Guillain
Illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti
8 pp. Candlewick Press

It’s easy to get kids keen on the ocean: introduce them to some of the curious characters that call it home. That’s exactly what the authors and illustrator do in I’m Thinking of an Ocean Animal, an interactive board book for toddlers and preschoolers. In this playful pull-the-tab book, four diverse kids offer clues on four diverse ocean animals. Readers can guess the animals and then pull the sliders to reveal the answers. Through rhyming clues and active illustrations, I’m Thinking of an Ocean Animal introduces little ones to some of the most interesting animals that inhabit the ocean.


cover of Counting Arctic AnimalsCounting Arctic Animals
Text and illustrations by Coco Apunnguaq Lynge
24 pp. Inhabit Media

Get kids learning numbers early—and keep them off Prodigy—by introducing them to some compelling counting books. In Counting Arctic Animals, a board book for babies and beyond, readers are invited to join Kuluk and Asa as they count all the animals they see, from one bowhead whale to 10 wolves. Rhyming verses feature intriguing collective nouns (think “a blessing of narwhals” and “a bob of seals”) and an Inuktitut word—ulu, which is a crescent knife traditionally used by women. Meanwhile, playful illustrations in a pastel palette depict the animals in their natural habitat. Counting Arctic Animals is an enthusiastic introduction to numbers, Arctic animals, and Inuit culture.


cover of Narwhalicorn and Jelly Narwhalicorn and Jelly
Text and illustrations by Ben Clanton
72 pp. Penguin Random House

Got a reluctant reader in your life? Offering them some graphic novels, like the Narwhal and Jelly series, is a great way to get them hooked on books. In Narwhalicorn and Jelly, the seventh book in the celebrated series, the tag team of Narwhal and Jelly set off on their “most amazing, awesomest, wildest, weirdest adventure yet.” As they wish their way onto dry land to see what it’s like to live like unicorns—aka narwhals of the land—they learn valuable lessons about friendship. While the book is fantastical fiction, there are some fun facts about real “unicorns,” including the unicornfish and the unicorn shrimp, aka the narwhal shrimp. In his trademark style, author-illustrator Ben Clanton delights readers with his clever dialogue complete with “unicorny” jokes and a quirky cast of expressive characters. Narwhalicorn and Jelly is a wacky and wonderful read with lasting lessons about the importance of being a good friend and how even the most ordinary adventures can be extraordinary.


cover of Well Done, Mommy PenguinWell Done, Mommy Penguin
Text and illustrations by Chris Haughton
40 pp. Candlewick Press

Being a mom can be hard work—whether you’re a person or a penguin. In Well Done, Mommy Penguin, a picture book for kids three to seven, Mommy Penguin heads out to the Antarctic Ocean to catch some dinner for Daddy Penguin and Little Penguin, who cheer her on from shore. Like any busy mom trying to prepare a meal, she faces many challenges: catching fish, leaping out of the ocean, climbing a cliff, sneaking past sleeping seals, and feeding her little one only for them to ask for more. Author-illustrator Chris Haughton’s simple prose—complete with dialogue and sound effects—paired with his lively collage-based illustrations capture the energy and excitement of the epic quest. Well Done, Mommy Penguin is an ode to hardworking moms that offers insight into penguin parenting through snappy storytelling and vibrant visuals.


cover of Akpa’s JourneyAkpa’s Journey
Text by Mia Pelletier
Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
34 pp. Inhabit Media

We meet some more stellar seafaring parents in Akpa’s Journey, a picture book for school-aged children. This sweet story explores the incredible lives and migrations of thick-billed murres through the journey of one family. Their story begins high on an Arctic cliff, where Akpa’s parents fiercely protect his egg from predators and the elements and then, when he emerges, fervently feed him so he grows big and strong. Akpa soon learns that before he can fly, he has to embark on an epic swimming migration with his father, who, like all adult murres, is unable to fly while he trades his summer feathers for his winter set. Descriptive language, including several Inuktitut words, and detailed illustrations draw readers into every stunning scene. Akpa’s Journey is an inspiring story about an incredible species with universal themes about perseverance and the love and dedication of parents.


cover of Iceberg: A Life in SeasonsIceberg: A Life in Seasons
Text by Claire Saxby
Illustrations by Jess Racklyeft
30 pp. House of Anansi

An iceberg “shears from a glacier and plunges to the ocean in a hazel of sparkle-frost.” And so begins its journey through the sea and through the seasons in Iceberg: A Life in Seasons, a nonfiction picture book for children three to six. As we follow the iceberg through its life cycle, we meet the many animals that call the Antarctic home. Poetic text and ethereal illustrations turn a simple scientific subject into an evocative story. At the end, an author’s note explains how the polar regions are being affected by climate change and a glossary defines scientific words kids may enjoy adding to their vocabularies, such as pancakes, which are circular pieces of ice that have raised edges from bumping against each other. Iceberg is a rare nonfiction book that beautifully layers art, science, and poetry into a memorable story that stays with readers.


cover of I Hear You, Ocean I Hear You, Ocean
Text by Kallie George
Illustrations by Carmen Mok
36 pp. Greystone Books

“The ocean has lots to say … if you listen.” It’s a poignant opening to a poignant book about the power of unplugging and tuning into the sounds of nature that surround us. In I Hear You, Ocean, a picture book for kids three to seven, a pair of brothers explores the seashore and absorbs all its soothing sounds, from the roar of the waves pouncing proudly to the skree of seabirds swooping swiftly. The rhythmic text captures the soundtrack of the setting while the charming illustrations depict the joys of a day at the beach. I Hear You, Ocean is an inspiring read with valuable lessons about respecting and appreciating both nature and your siblings.


cover of The Baker by the SeaThe Baker by the Sea
Text and illustrations by Paula White
40 pp. Penguin Random House

The perfect antidote to our high-tech world is a sojourn to simpler times in the past. In The Baker by the Sea, a picture book for children age three to seven, author-illustrator Paula White transports readers to Beach Village, which stood on the coast of Suffolk, England, until it was washed away by the great floods in 1953. There, we meet the baker’s son who dreams of becoming a fisherman, which he deems the most meaningful job in town—much more meaningful than being a baker. But when the boy asks his father why he didn’t want to become a fisherman, he learns that every role in the community is essential and decides to follow in his father’s floury footsteps. Gentle verse in the boy’s voice and delicate pencil-and-ink illustrations paint a picture of a beloved bygone era many children may want to keep exploring. The Baker by the Sea is a touching tribute to the past with a timeless message: everyone—and every job—matters.


cover of The Girl Who Built an OceanThe Girl Who Built an Ocean
Text by Jess Keating
Illustrations by Michelle Mee Nutter
40 pp. Penguin Random House

Pioneering female scientists faced many barriers due to sexism. Even when they broke down those barriers, they were still largely ignored and written out of history. Fortunately, the female scientists of today are sharing the stories of the female scientists of yesteryear and inspiring the scientists of tomorrow. In The Girl Who Built an Ocean, zoologist turned author Jess Keating tells the true story of seamstress turned marine biologist Jeanne Villepreux-Power, who built the world’s first aquarium and made an important discovery about argonauts’ shells. Through an engaging narrative and whimsical illustrations, Keating and illustrator Michelle Mee Nutter trace Villepreux-Power’s incredible life, from a little girl who dreamed big to an accomplished woman whose invention lives on today. Back matter dives deeper into Villepreux-Power’s accomplishments and argonauts’ shells and includes a timeline of the scientist’s life and work. The Girl Who Built an Ocean is an empowering book about a fascinating woman, her fascinating invention, and a fascinating animal, as well as the value of following your dreams, working hard, and never giving up.


cover of Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the NightLuminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night
Text and illustrations by Julia Kuo
44 pp. Greystone Books

This past summer, my family and I went to the ocean at dark to watch it light up. As we walked in the waves, dinoflagellates—tiny, one-celled organisms—set off sparks of light. It was a magical and memorable experience. In Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night, author-illustrator Julia Kuo explores the fascinating phenomenon of bioluminescence—when living things produce light—in its many forms, particularly in ocean creatures. Simple text invites kids to imagine all the things they could do if they could glow in the dark, while informative sidebars reveal fun facts about the luminescent characters. Dramatic glowing illustrations on black pages depict an awestruck parent and child together discovering nature’s light show. Luminous is a captivating read that shines a light on a fascinating phenomenon sure to spark kids’ curiosity and encourage them to embrace—rather than fear—the dark.


cover of The Global OceanThe Global Ocean
Text by Rochelle Strauss
Illustrations by Natasha Donovan
36 pp. Kids Can Press

The ocean is “Earth’s beating heart.” That’s the central premise of The Global Ocean, an illustrated nonfiction book for children in grades three to seven. After an eye-opening overview of the ocean’s central role in the health of the planet, the book dives into the negative effects of human activity on the health of the ocean. Author Rochelle Strauss keeps the tone positive and proactive by addressing each challenge—climate change, pollution, overfishing, and shoreline hardening—with real-life examples of solutions, some involving kids. Bright, bold illustrations showcase the beauty of the ocean and depict kids making a difference, from participating in beach cleanups to painting ocean murals. At the end of the book, there’s a comprehensive list of how children can show the ocean some love and make sure Earth’s heart is healthy. The Global Ocean is a call to action that articulates the power of the ocean and the power of each and every one of us to make a positive impact on preserving it for future generations.


cover of Whales to the Rescue: How Whales Help Engineer the PlanetWhales to the Rescue: How Whales Help Engineer the Planet
Text by Adrienne Mason
Illustrations by Kim Smith
40 pp. Kids Can Press

If you’ve been a fan of Hakai Magazine for a while, you may know that it’s occasionally been dubbed Whale Magazine in jest, thanks to all the stories about whales. And if Hakai Magazine is Whale Magazine, managing editor Adrienne Mason is chief whale editor. She’s also a biologist and kids’ book author, and she shares her deep knowledge of how the mysterious animals of the deep shape our world in Whales to the Rescue: How Whales Help Engineer the Planet. This entertaining and educational nonfiction book for kids eight to 12 introduces readers to whales and explores how they’re ecosystem engineers and true climate champions. Accessible text connects with kids through fun facts (a 10-year-old could fit inside a blue whale heart!), interesting analogies (whale migration is the ocean’s Mixmaster), and plenty of poop references (after all, “whale poop makes the world go round!”) Vibrant illustrations in an aquamarine palette transport readers to the watery world, while simple breakout graphics reinforce learning. Whales to the Rescue is a celebration of cetaceans with an important message that whales can help us, but we must help them, too.

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