I can sit on a beach for hours and watch the waves coming in, each slightly different than the one before, or the way the light on the water shifts as the sun goes down. In a port city there are tugboats and barges, fishing boats and tankers, yachts and paddleboarders, gulls and giddy dogs to watch. And that’s before we get to what’s on the beach.
So it’s no surprise that I love stories about the ocean. Here are a few of my childhood favourites…
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Of course you know the Disney movie, but have you read the fairy tale it’s based on? It’s darker and sadder and features 100% fewer singing lobsters, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.
Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. This 1897 classic follows the adventures of a spoiled rich boy who gets swept off a ship and rescued by the crew of a fishing boat. They’re too busy to take him back to shore right away, so he must learn to adapt and grow up.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. The first in a series of books about children in boats in the Lake District of England. The four siblings who make up the crew of the Swallow are thrilled when they’re given permission to camp on an island. But the two Amazons have got there first — and now it’s war. This summary doesn’t even begin to cover it — see my earlier post for more.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. My favourite Narnia book (for obvious reasons — there’s a tall ship in it!) follows the adventures of a spoiled schoolboy who gets swept onto a ship (following his cousins Lucy and Edmund Pevensie) and must learn to adapt and grow up. The movie is all right, but of course the book is better.
The Sea Egg by L. M. Boston. You might recognize this author’s name — she’s better known for writing the Green Knowe books (also highly recommended!). In this unrelated fantasy story, two boys buy an egg that hatches a young merman. A lovely mix of adventure and poetry.
Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane. This is the second book in Duane’s long-running Young Wizards series, and it’s probably my favourite. Not only is it all about (intelligent) sea creatures such as dolphins, whales, and sharks, but it features a re-enactment of an ancient myth. The myth isn’t real (in the sense that Duane didn’t use an existing tale, but made one up), but it’s full of resonances and mythic tropes.
Honorable mention #1: I haven’t discussed Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne because I figured they needed no explanation. But they do merit a brief mention in a post like this!
Honorable mention #2: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. This series is for adults, not children, but if you love tall ships and fantasy, it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s been described as “the Napoleonic Wars with dragons”, which is true, but this description omits the integral part that ships play. Not only that, but Novik’s dragons are big enough to bear entire crews, which lends a whole new dimension to aerial battles….
Your turn! What are your favourite stories involving the sea?