Three “Beach Reads” I Should Have Told You About Earlier

August 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

"Three Bears in a Boat" by David SomanWe have spent some fabulous time at the ocean this summer, and it seems almost cruel to deny my children their sand-worn feet and crab-catching nets, in exchange for the laced shoes and lunch bags of a rapidly-approaching new school year. It also seems a bit cruel to have waited until now to share with you our favorite beach reads of 2014. Then again, I’ve been too busy helping my children dig giant sand pits to bother with computers, and I suppose that counts for something, too.

Each time we read David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat (Ages 3-6), the idyllic watercolor seascapes have me yearning for the New England coast, where icy waters crash on rocky shores, lighthouses guide fog-draped ships, and legends abound on the salty tongues of weathered fishermen. In this case, the high seas adventure features three energetic young bears (Dash, Theo, and a female Charlie), who accidentally shatter their mother’s prized blue seashell in a reckless moment of play. Fearing maternal wrath (“after all, [she] was a bear”), the scheming youngsters set off in a sailboat to find a replacement shell that they can put back before she returns.

Their circuitous route (which you can trace on the map inside the book’s endpapers) takes the bears past advice-dishing fishermen; around islands both populated and remote; over the backs of whales; through caves dark and scary (naturally, it’s the girl who’s brave enough to go first); and finally through a loud, wave-crashing thunderstorm (during which my children clutch my arm in a death grip every single time). Soman, illustrator of the popular Ladybug Girl books (which, if I’m being honest, have always come up short for me), breaks out and excels on his own, building suspense as the pages add up and concluding with an endearing message of sibling concord and parental forgiveness.

"Out of the Blue" by Alison JayOurs is more of an experience-the-sea-from-land kind of family, so we’re partial to Alison Jay’s new wordless picture book, Out of the Blue (Ages 2-6), which stars a young boy living with his dad and their dog in a charming red-and-white lighthouse. (Pause: is there anything cooler for a child to imagine than living in a lighthouse—spending your days on the beach and your nights keeping watch over the sea?) Jay’s book abounds with glimpses into the lighthouse, including the floor plan, the uniquely tapered bunk beds, and the secret passageway to the lookout tower.

As with any great wordless book, it takes several “readings” to grasp all the details and sub-plots at work here, but the main event is the beaching of a giant octopus (yes, there is such a species, and kids will learn all about it, along with other beachy phenomenon, in the book’s afterward). Initial fear at discovering the distressed octopus quickly turns to empathy, as the boy notices tears in the animal’s eyes. In a brilliant spread of magical realism, Jay paints the coordinated effort of beach-goers and sea creatures alike to free the octopus from the tangled net and drag it back into the ocean—where it reunites with its mother and waves a thankful tentacle. (I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you of one of my Favorite Books of All Time: Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, featuring a similar beached rescue by children.)

"Elizabeth Queen of the Seas" by Lynne CoxWhat if a 1200-pound sea animal beached herself on purpose—and insisted on doing so again and again? And what if this happened in real life? Lest your children think the mysteries of the sea are entirely mythic in nature, you should get your hands on Lynne Cox’s Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas (Ages 4-8), based on the true events surrounding a peculiar elephant seal, who took up residence in the heart of Christchurch, New Zealand a few years ago. While most seals live in salt water and prefer rocky coasts to, say, busy concrete streets, this one liked to lounge on the banks of the Avon River—lifting her flippers to salute passing schoolchildren and occasionally dragging herself out of the muck and into the middle of oncoming traffic.

Cox’s heartfelt re-enactment, illustrated by master watercolorist Brian Floca (who won the Caldecott earlier this year for Locomotive), traces the bewildered efforts of the townspeople, who repeatedly arrange for Elizabeth to be safely relocated into the wild ocean, only to have her reappear in Christchurch days, weeks, even months later. Much like the city rescue mission in the equally charming, albeit simpler, Lucky Ducklings (reviewed here), the heart of this story lies, not just in the people’s affection for the stubborn seal, but also in their ultimate acceptance of her non-conformist ways (they ultimately let her stay and post warning signs for automobiles). Time and time again, nature reminds us that where there’s a will there’s a way. I have a feeling that my own children, like Elizabeth, will find their way back to the memories of this sea-filled summer for years to come.

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(For more sea adventures, don’t miss last summer’s post with both fiction and non-fiction selections at the end.)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Three Bears in a Boat free of charge from Penguin Group (USA) and one of Out of the Blue courtesy of Barefoot Books (though I would have bought both myself and have since for gifts). I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the books; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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