From the day he was born I wanted to inspire my son with tales of the sea, just as I had been inspired as I grew up. I saw it as a key part of sowing the seeds for a lifetime in and around boats (see Get your family boating in 6 steps). And so I started looking around for boating books for children - books that might help capture his interest in sailing, boats and the sea. Here is a list of some of the wonderful books I discovered in both my childhood, and, so far, during his.
We have mostly focused on picture books in this list (although we couldn't miss out Swallows and Amazons, which can be read aloud much younger than you might think). The age range is really for children aged from birth to around the age of seven.
It's virtually impossible to put an age range on books, I feel. Different books suit different ages when reading aloud, or as children learn to read for themselves, or enjoy repeating the story from memory. Sometimes the pictures alone capture from an earlier age than you might think, and song-based books and those with rhythmical text are entertaining for small babies even before they can understand the words.
I have read to my son since he was born, and found some surprises along the way where books I might not think would appeal, have become firm favourites. All I can say is, every child is different, what is favoured one week is different from the next. Never assume a book is too old for your child, and remember to haul out some of the simpler books you many feel they have grown out of when they move on in their development and start to read for themselves.
These books are listed (very roughly) in order of age/complexity and I've tried to include my own observations about when they worked for us.
1. Brilliant Boats
Tony Mitton and Ant Parker
This is a bright, fun book with a good rhythm and rhyming that was particularly good in education my son about lifejackets in a fun way that made them seem a normal and exciting part of going on the water. It goes through the different types of boats and some of the equipment in a simple way, great from birth upwards.
A lovely simple picture book on boats of all types with simple, colourful pictures and fewer words than many of the other books in this list, especially good from the age of 1-2. Now nearly three, my son still requests this one from time to time, he calls it his "tugboat book".
3. Goodnight Ocean
Another simple picture book, a bit Americanised, but a firm bedtime favourite. It takes you through a variety of sea creatures and boats ending with a beautiful starlight ocean, again great from the age of 1-2.
4. Octopus's Garden
Ringo Starr and Ben Cort
We all know the Beatles song, and Ben Cort's wonderful illustrations really bring it alive. Easy to sing along, my son loved this book when he was a tiny baby as we used to sing it to him. Its familiarity was such than we found the playing the song in the car would send him immediately to sleep when a small baby. He went off it a bit when he was about two, and then out of the blue asked for it again as he began to learn the words and sing along. I imagine he will continue to enjoy this until he starts to read it himself.
5. Ten Little Pirates
Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty
Think 'The Fat Sausages' and you will have the tune, this book sees all the pirates lost apart from one who ends up on a desert island, then his shipmates get washed ashore at the end. It makes the adults smile, especially when you come to the page that reads "…four little pirates bobbing on the sea, "Coo-ee!" calls a mermaid, now there are… three". I should add that the 10 pirates include some girl pirates, my son loves naming them after his friends.
Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler
A firm favourite that just seems to come back into favour every few months. Beautifully illustrated and written, longer than some of the others but I've been reading this to my son since he was a baby. He's enjoyed the rhythm of the words before he understood them, and by the time he was two was starting to repeat bits of the story. At 2.5 he was reciting it to anyone who wanted to listen and would join in and recite the bits of the story he knew when it was read aloud to him.
There are lots of other Julia Donaldson books that could make the list, including Sharing a Shell and the Snail and the Whale (the story of a snail who wants to travel the world) but, in the interests of variety, I've limited myself to two of her books.
7. Portside Pirates
Osear Seaworthy and Debbie Harter
From the great Barefoot Books series, this includes a CD of the song (which can also be found on Youtube). My son started to get into this a few months after he was two, favouring other books in the series (especially The Journey Home from Grandpa's, which he loved from the age of one) before then. It is a more politically correct version of the song I recall from my childhood (which included the line 'a bottle of rum to fill my tum', not to be found in this book) and illustrated in a bright, fun, way that brings the song's story to life. The song is on a playlist we regularly use in the car when we're on long journeys.
8. Pirates Love Underpants
Claire Freedman and Ben Cort
A follow-up to the famous Aliens Love Underpants, this is great around potty-training time, and its clever puns will, I believe, mean it will be enjoyed for a few years yet. Fun and written with a great rhythm it is also beautifully illustrated by Ben Cort, who did the drawings for Octopus's Garden. It's a simple, fun story of pirates who search for a pair of gold underpants, only to find some other pirates got there first. They cleverly snip their rivals' elastic so their pants fall off and they can't chase after them.
9. Once Upon a Tide
Tony Mitton and Selina Young
A gorgeous story about a boy and a girl who make a boat and go sailing. They eventually turn their boat into a house where they live on the beach "singing songs of far-off seas, with children sitting round our knees". Well written with a lovely rhythm and beautiful illustrations, I really love this book and my son enjoys looking through it himself as well as having it read aloud.
10. Jack and the Flumflum Tree
Julia Donaldson and David Roberts
"Don't get your knickers in a twist says Jack, let's have a look in the patchwork sack." My son loved the repeating lines in this book, it's lots of fun and amusing for the adult reading as well. It tells the tale Jack and his friends who build a boat and sail off to the island of Blowyernose to get a Flumflum fruit to make Jack's granny's moozles better. A really enjoyable read, in my view, perhaps Julia Donaldson's best.
11. Grandad's Island
My son finds this a bit sad, so he obviously understands some of what it is referring to. A tale about a grandad and grandson who sail to an island, but the grandfather decides to stay. It's obviously deal for helping a young child deal with losing a loved one. Beautifully illustrated and well written it's a frequent bedtime request.
12. Five Minutes to Bed!
A fun bedtime read for any pirate-obsessed toddler. The pirates are put hard to work as they ask for five, four, three, two and one more minute before they go to bed. In the end they fall asleep as they are exhausted. It doesn't, in my experience, have the same affect on said toddler, but does help them to feel like sleep might be a little bit more attractive, after all, even pirates do it!
13. Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain
This book was a big surprise to me. Given as a gift a couple of months after my son had turned two, I expected that it wouldn't interest him until he was older, but no, he loved it from the start. This is an old story with beautiful watercolour and pen and ink illustrations, but although some things are out of date (who sends telegrams these days?) this didn't bother my son at all. For a while it was his absolute favourite, then it would come back into favour every now and again and I expect it will continue to do so.
The tale is of a small boy who wants to become a sailor and runs away to sea, the ship is wrecked and he is saved by a lifeboat. My son didn't find it scary, but the book does a good job of painting life at sea as pretty hard so I don't think he'll be running away himself anytime soon.
14. A Sailing Boat in the Sky
This is another lovely story, beautifully illustrated as you'd expect from any book by Quentin Blake. Written as a collaborative project with a number of children from across the world, it tells the tale of two children who find bits of a boat and put it together. They then travel to help people who need it, picking up passengers along the way who find themselves in trouble. This led to a lot of questions about some of the 'nasty people' who throw stones, but it's a lovely story highlighting the fact that there are lots of people far less fortunate than ourselves, as well as a message about not judging how nice someone is based on their looks.
Another fabulous book from Quentin Blake is Mrs Armitage goes Surfing, but in my limited list of 25 books, there was room for just one Quinten Blake book and A Sailing Boat in the Sky won.
15. The Flotsam Fairy
A self published book by professional storyteller Mark Fraser (see Walk the Lines), which is illustrated by the author. The illustrations are great and I love the whole idea of this story, which tells the tale of a pirate crew: "Only Sam the apprentice is honest and true, but he is the lowest in this terrible crew." They meet the Flotsam Fairy, who is sailing her teapot-boat and are granted three wishes. All the wishes end very badly until Sam suggests a wish and the fairy turns the boat into a lifeboat, "So now they live as a lifeboat crew, saving souls on the ocean blue." A fun and easy book to read aloud.
16. Colin the Coastguard: Mistie Goes Sailing
Personally I find the illustrations in this very annoying - the people have rather strange noses and some of the boat details are so incorrect that they really grate for someone who knows boats.
However, from the moment I first read this book to my son (aged two years and nine months) he was a real fan. He loved the story which involves a cat who ends up taking part in a yacht race. The boat the cat decides to nap on hits some floating wood, loses its rudder and has to be rescued by the lifeboat. He took it for his four-year-old friend to listen to as well, and they both loved it together, enjoying the questions at the end of the book (just two of which relied on reading skills, the others were easy for him to answer).
For a couple of weeks this was THE book of choice and it had to go with him everywhere, since then it regularly reappears as a request at bed time. Despite my dislike of the 'strange-nosed people', I imagine we will end up hunting out others in the series.
17. Louis the Lifeboat: The Little Lost Whale
The language in this book is a little more advanced than Colin the Coastguard and didn't capture my son as much as Colin did, but it's still a great addition to our bookshelf. A whale gets washed up on a beach and Louis helps to rescue him. It has inspired even more lifeboat-rescuing role play games, both at bathtime and many other times of day.
18. The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch
Ronda and David Armitage
Another series of books with a definite sea theme. In this particular story the seagulls decide to steal the poor Lighthouse Keeper's lunch, a tale which found great resonance with my son as he'd once had an ice cream stolen by a seagull.
19. Sailor Ted and The Big Rescue
If you live anywhere near the Isle of Wight or happen to visit it, this is a brilliant book. It's not a particularly easy read and quite long, but it has ferries, a rescue helicopter, a bus, a lifeboat and a tugboat all playing their parts in the rescue of an oil tanker. We could point out the real landmarks to our son, and having been on the ferry he enjoyed it even more. It led to extensive role playing games "towing" any wiling adults with bits of string as he became the lifeboat rescuing the tanker and the tanker soon appeared in his bath time games as well.
It's not amazingly illustrated, but it does a great job of tying in local landmarks and if you visit the island, there are shops in Cowes and Yarmouth selling the books, others in the series and Sailor Ted soft toys. It certainly captured my son's imagination, even if it's not my favourite bedtime read.
20. The Octonauts and the Only Lonely Monster
Rather a bizarre mix of complicated language used in the writing of this book, but the Octonauts are a huge hit with my son and he can reel off the names and facts regarding numerous sea creatures, even with very limited television viewing. This meant he was excited by the book even when he was younger and as he has grown, no at nearly three he's starting to enjoy it more.
21. The Pirates Next Door
Designed in more of a cartoon format, my son isn't so taken with this one... yet, but I know the books in this series are a great hit with many slightly older pirate-obsessed children we know. One that's on the bookshelf for a bit later on.
22. Katie Morag and the new Pier
With a Scottish connection in our family, Katie Morag had to make an appearance. We got it when our son was 2.5 and he did enjoy the story straight away, although he needed to be in a settled or tired mood in order to concentrate and listen to the whole thing. Lovely illustrations and a big hit with the Scots in the family.
23. The Mousehole Cat
The beautiful illustrations in this story by Nicola Bayley add so much magic to a simple tale of an old fisherman and his cat who put to sea to save the village who are starving. The star of the story is the cat, who tames the big 'Storm Cat' with her singing, allowing them to fish and bring their catch ashore just in time for Christmas. This was only just beginning to interest my son as he neared three as the story is much more wordy and less rhythmic, but he loved the pictures.
24. Swallows and Amazons
An absolute classic that filled my childhood with dreams of sailing. I was about seven when I first came across it, and my parents who had never read it or any of the other books in the series were soon as hooked on them as we children were. The new Swallows and Amazon film is sure to capture even more interest in this book and the rest of the series.
25. Go Sailing
This is a great introduction to sailing and sailing theory for adults and children alike, even though it is aimed squarely at kids. Beautifully illustrated with fun cartoons this book outlines all the basics and works well as both a book to prepare kids to go afloat, and back up on the water learning once back ashore with facts about the wind and boat parts. Published by the RYA, also available from Claudia Myatt direct.
There you have it, 25 great boating books for children. I'm sure I could list 25 more, and I'm certain you too will have some favourites that haven't made the list.
For more boating books see Alex Smith's list of the best powerboat books.