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Picture books under the sea

With water covering around 70% of the world’s surface and playing home to some of the most fascinating creatures on earth, it is not surprising that it is a perennially popular topic for young children. And, this ongoing popularity means that there are plenty of books available on this topic to encourage students to pursue their interest in oceanography and sea life generally. Here are some of the best options to foster this interest and to bring the creatures of the ocean to your storytimes:

Ocean SunlightOcean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, illustrated by Molly Bang
This book by the incomparable Molly Bang and MIT scientist and professor Penny Chisholm is a perfect introduction to the science of the sea and underwater food chains. Bang’s artwork is predictably wonderful and the description of the process by which underwater plant life keeps the rest of the sea alive is a great way of starting a conversation about food chains more generally. This book is a nice addition to science lessons for kindergarten through second grade.

Fantastic Undersea LifeThe Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino
Combining retro illustrations with the fascinating life of Jacques Cousteau, this book is a good option for introducing students to Cousteau’s work and life on the ocean in general. The book includes quotes directly from Cousteau, which helps to bring him to life even more. It also includes a list of suggested reading and a timeline of Cousteau’s life for those who want to learn more about him.

SwimmySwimmy by Leo Lionni
This classic Caldecott Honor book follows a little fish named Swimmy who bands together with the other fish in his school to fight against the dangers of the open sea and the large fish that is bullying them. The story is wonderful for young children who are fascinated by fish and the artwork brings Swimmy’s world to life beautifully. Great for children from preschool through second grade.

This Is Not My HatThis Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
This 2013 Caldecott Winner follows a small fish as he swims away from the scene of his crime — the theft of a larger fish’s hat. The text of the story tells a very different tale than the visual narrative, which makes this not only a funny read but also one that gives children a chance to explore the meaning of this conflict and the subjectivity of the small fish’s perspective. The illustrations perfectly fit the story making this a great choice for storytimes, particularly for the preschool through first grade crowd.

Life in the Ocean

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola
Focused on the life and underwater exploration of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, this picture book combines the inspiring story of how Earle followed her dream from childhood through to a successful life as an expert in underwater exploration with beautiful watercolors of nature and underwater scenes. This would be a great read-aloud book for budding marine biologists or K-3 classrooms learning about the ocean. The book also includes an author’s note about the negative environmental impact humans have had on the ocean and a bibliography of other sources on the topic.

I hope these books will help you to bring the world of the sea to your classroom or story time. Let me know in the comments if there are others that you like to use to introduce oceanography and the underwater world to your students.


Editor’s note: I feel compelled to add a plug for Katherine Roy’s roy_neighborhood-sharks_170x218Neighborhood Sharks. We debated its status as a picture book over at Calling Caldecott earlier this year. I think it is absolutely a picture book!


Carli Spina About Carli Spina

Carli Spina is a librarian who is currently pursuing a masters in technology, innovation, and education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be found on Twitter at @CarliSpina.



  1. Thanks for the great list. Yesterday was World Oceans Day and it’s great that you’re sharing these wonderful books on our oceans and seas. I had wonderful help from fabulous oceanographers and marine biologist writing my picture book THESE SEAS COUNT! with gorgeous illustrations by Sarah Snow (Albert Whitman & Co., 2013). I hope you can include this on future lists. I regularly visit schools and share the importance of caring for our seas, bees, trees, and rocks in our world. These Things Count!

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