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Environment

C Is For Coastal Kids’ Books

Twelve new titles teach children to care for the environment and each other.

Raina Deslisle 12 Jul 2021 | Hakai Magazine

Raina Delisle is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has been published in the Globe and Mail, Huffington Post and Today’s Parent, among others. She wrote this article for the award-winning Hakai Magazine.

Indigenous artist Roy Henry Vickers has been in awe of the power of storytelling since he was a little boy on a small island on British Columbia’s west coast, in the Tsimshian village of Kitkatla. At the end of potlatches, storytellers would get up in front of the entire village and share tales that would stay with listeners long after the gatherings, he recalls, getting choked up and closing his eyes as he speaks about the memory at a recent B.C. and Yukon Book Prizes event.

“That’s how education happened prior to colonization,” Vickers says from his home along the Skeena River during the online event. “Now I realize with [author Robert “Lucky” Budd] and all of the work we’re doing, we are like this reminder that there is a really beautiful way to teach people in this world and that’s through story.”

Vickers and Budd have been doing just that for nearly a decade, producing about a book a year, including Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak, which is up for a B.C. and Yukon Book Prize, and A is for Anemone: A First West Coast Alphabet, which was recently released. During the event, Budd spoke of the extensive research and reflective learning they do to weave Indigenous knowledge into their books. “The story is just merely a vehicle for everything that’s embedded into the narrative of the story,” Budd says. “As Roy always likes to say, ‘Your heart never forgets the story.’”

The importance of sharing Indigenous stories has been at the forefront of public discourse since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., announced on May 27 the devastating discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 students at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Many people were shocked that children had died at Canada’s residential schools, despite the fact that Indigenous people have been speaking about these tragedies for decades.

Kids’ books can help teach the next generation about Indigenous culture and history through Indigenous stories as well as books about the natural world, which Indigenous peoples have always been stewarding. Children learn and develop at a rapid pace during early childhood, and reading can help instil values and cultural awareness. Here are 12 new coastal kids’ books that will educate and entertain readers of all ages.

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Robert Budd, illustrations by Roy Henry Vickers, Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak (Harbour Publishing)

Babies love new sounds. In fact, imitating sounds is essential for their language development. In Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak, a board book for babies and toddlers, Vickers and Budd introduce little ones to the soundtrack of the West Coast. Thunder booms, paddles swoosh and sea lions roar as readers explore the coast. Vickers’s signature illustrations in primary colours with bold black lines captivate even newborn babies, who can only focus on high-contrast images and patterns. Looking at such visuals is actually imperative for their vision development. Bigger babes may reach for the embossed details on the pages, giving them a tactile experience and further imprinting the Pacific Northwest coast art in their minds. Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak is a visually and auditorily stimulating book that supports infant development — and entertainment! — in many ways.

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Robert Budd, illustrations by Roy Henry Vickers, A is for Anemone: A First West Coast Alphabet (Harbour Publishing)

It’s time to practice pronouncing anemone (hint: an-EM-ah-nee)! A is for Anemone, another board book by Vickers and Budd, introduces little learners to the ABCs through classic West Coast scenes and characters, from the depths of the ocean to the peaks of the mountains and from spiky sea urchins to knobby humpbacks. The rhythmic rhyming text and vivid descriptions make reading aloud a joy, and the bright, bold illustrations with embossed details invite a sense of wonder about the wild West Coast. The book features Indigenous clam diggers and paddlers as well as totem poles and Xsien, the Skeena River. At the B.C. and Yukon Book Prizes event, Budd spoke of the importance of including Indigenous languages in their work. “In 150 years of colonization, much of the language and the meaning has been lost,” he says, adding that Xsien means river of clouds. A is for Anemone offers a memorable introduction to West Coast language, culture and biodiversity — all of which need to be protected.

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Nikki McClure, 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea: A Pacific Northwest Counting Book (Orca Book Publishers)

After little ones practice their ABCs, they can move on to their 123s. 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea gets them counting a diverse cast of coastal creatures, from “one stubby squid exploring below” to “10 sand lances in an auklet’s bill.” After 10, the picture book for preschoolers jumps by the tens, hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands all the way up to “one million raindrops returning to the Salish Sea,” giving kids an early opportunity to learn how many zeros are in the big numbers. Author-artist Nikki McClure illustrated the book by cutting images into paper with a utility knife and adding splashes of watercolour. 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea is a delightful book sure to get children counting and contemplating all the incredible creatures that make their homes in the Pacific Northwest.

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Toni Yuly, Ollie Feels Fine (Little Bigfoot)

The pandemic has taken a toll on toddlers, keeping them from parks and playdates and friends and family. Lack of interaction and distraction can lead to some big feelings for little ones. Ollie Feels Fine has come along at just the right time. In this board book, readers meet Ollie the octopus as he rides waves of emotions on a busy day at sea. Fortunately, his friend Stella the starfish is by his side to reassure him that it’s okay to not be okay. As Ollie’s feelings change so too does his colour — just like my mood ring in high school — helping children better understand the range of emotions and how they affect us, and creating a colourful collection of illustrations. Ollie Feels Fine is a sweet and simple story that lets kids know that it’s fine to feel all the feels and even finer to talk about them.

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Owen Davey, Obsessive About Octopuses (Flying Eye Books)

Octopuses, Ollie included, are pretty rad. In Obsessive About Octopuses, a guide for readers ages five to 11, author-illustrator Owen Davey introduces curious kids to the clever cephalopods through fascinating facts and colourful, retro-inspired illustrations. Kids will learn the basic and the bizarre about these curious beings, from where they live, what they eat and how they move around to how they change their colour, create light and shape-shift to look like other species and sidestep threats. At the end of the book, there are some tips on how kids can help protect their new eight-armed friends. Obsessive About Octopuses is an engaging guide sure to inspire a lifelong respect for these weird and wonderful creatures and their place in the world.

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Dominic Walliman, illustrations by Ben Newman, Professor Astro Cat’s Deep-Sea Voyage (Flying Eye Books)

Why is the sea blue? Where did all the water come from? What can we do to help protect the ocean? Kids have all kinds of questions about the deep. If you’ve ever been stumped for an answer, Professor Astro Cat’s Deep-Sea Voyage is for you (and the children, of course). In this funky fact book for seven-to-11-year-olds, Professor Astro Cat and his sidekicks take you on an epic voyage from kelp forests to coral reefs and from the seabed to deep-sea vents to learn about the incredible ocean and its coolest residents. Narrator Professor Astro Cat expertly explains complex concepts in a conversational tone while bright illustrations with a vintage vibe capture the details and diversity of ocean creatures and ecosystems. Professor Astro Cat’s Deep-Sea Voyage is the perfect companion for curious kids who want to know everything about the ocean.

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April Pulley Sayre, illustrations by Kasia Bogdańska, Seagulls Soar (Boyds Mills & Kane)

There’s something about seagulls. Maybe it’s their ability to keep their snow-white feathers clean or their agility to steal my french fries right before my eyes, but I’ve always had a lot of respect for my feathered friends. In Seagulls Soar, a picture book for children ages four to eight, readers young and old learn all kinds of cool facts about gulls through catchy, lyrical rhymes and vibrant, action-packed illustrations. Did you know, for instance, that gulls hang out in all kinds of habitats? “Great Salt Lake / to desert dry / far from sea / gulls surf the sky.” Or that they practice yoga? “Seagulls preen / seagulls sun / left wing, left leg / stretch as one.” At the end of the story, curious readers who want to keep learning can find more detailed information about how the birds forage for all kinds of nosh and learn from other animals including humans, and why we call them seagulls anyway. You’ll never look at those french fry thieves the same way.

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Susannah Buhrman-Deever, illustrations by Matthew Trueman, If You Take Away the Otter (Candlewick Press)

Try telling a kid you want to talk about “trophic cascades” and watch their eyes glaze over. (Happens every time!) Yet understanding how a top predator’s entry or exit from an ecosystem can have ripple effects is essential knowledge for any young scientist. Which is where If You Take Away the Otter comes in. This picture book for children ages five to eight introduces readers to one of the most famous trophic cascades in the ocean. When sea otter hunting to fuel the maritime fur trade along the Pacific coast of North America drove the species to near extinction by the early 1900s, sea urchins multiplied and mowed down kelp forests, which offered food and shelter to many other species. Through clear, compelling prose and enchanting illustrations that capture otters in all their whiskered cuteness, this book takes us to the “forests without trees” beneath the waves to witness their destruction and recovery. Importantly, the story highlights how Indigenous peoples have always sustainably hunted sea otters, but fur traders exploited both the people and the animals for financial gain. Fascinating facts enhance the main story (some types of kelp can grow 0.3 metres in a day!) and resources at the end of the book encourage those who want to know more to keep diving. If You Take Away the Otter is an enlightening tale about an often-overlooked ecosystem that illustrates how everything is connected.

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Beryl Young, illustrations by Sakika Kikuchi, Show Us Where You Live, Humpback (Greystone Kids)

Humpback whales: they’re just like us. Well, in many ways. In Show Us Where You Live, Humpback, a poetic picture book for children ages three to seven, readers see how little people and little whales enjoy many of the same things: swimming, splashing, singing and sticking close to their mamas while exploring this wondrous world we share. Author Beryl Young beautifully juxtaposes the daily activities of a mother and child with those of a humpback and calf, inviting readers to draw parallels between life on land and life at sea. Meanwhile, illustrator Sakika Kikuchi captures the graceful movements of the whales and the joy and wonder of the mother and child in a dreamy watercolour world. Show Us Where You Live, Humpback is a soothing bedtime story that lovingly illustrates how the connection between mother and child transcends species.

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Alma Fullerton, No More Plastic (Pajama Press)

Experts say one of the best ways to cope with eco-anxiety, and other negative emotions related to the climate crisis, is to take positive action. Which is exactly what Isley, a Prince Edward Island girl, does in No More Plastic, a picture book for children ages four to seven.

After discovering a beached right whale that starved to death after swallowing plastic, she turns her anger into action. She swears off plastic, makes a plastic-free sign for the beach, and even writes a letter to the mayor asking her to ban bottled water. Isley inspires those around her, but they eventually go back to their old ways. Instead of giving up, Isley decides that big changes call for big action — and after months of hard work, she gets big results.

No More Plastic is an inspiring story of perseverance with an important lesson that one little person can make a big difference. The intriguing illustrations — diorama art made out of plastic waste, sand and moss — help tell the story and drive home the message. The author’s note at the end includes several ideas of things kids can do to make a difference, including writing letters to decision-makers to demand change — a great rainy-day activity!

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Lara Hawthorne, Alba and the Ocean Cleanup (Candlewick Press)

While humans harm and then try to rehabilitate the ocean from above, myriad species struggle with the changes below the waves. In Alba and the Ocean Cleanup, a picture book for children ages three to seven, we meet a little orange fish named Alba who watches her bright and busy reef become gray and desolate due to pollution. When she gets stuck in a plastic bottle and floats to shore, a girl named Kaia saves her and inspires her community to come together to clean up their act. Vibrant illustrations become muted, reiterating the impact of the pollution on the environment, and the story draws parallels between Alba and Kaia’s lives, highlighting our interconnectedness. Alba and the Ocean Cleanup is a timely tale that helps children understand how our actions on land affect animals at sea — and how we can be better neighbors.

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Mike Deas and Nancy Deas, illustrations by Mike Deas, Otter Lagoon: Sueño Bay Adventures (Orca Book Publishers)

The Sueño Bay crew is back for another supernatural adventure! My kids and I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel to the first graphic novel in the Sueño Bay Adventures series (which I featured two years ago), and we weren’t disappointed. In Otter Lagoon, good kid Jenna feels forced to do some bad things to get some fast cash to pay for surgery for a dog that was injured while in her care. One thing leads to another and Jenna suddenly finds herself embroiled in the exotic animal trade with sea monster eggs — and her village’s future — in her hands. Through snappy dialogue and action-packed illustrations, Jenna and her friends take us on a wild ride as they race against time to make things right. A heart-pumping adventure with a heart-warming message: we all make mistakes and it’s never too late to do the right thing.  [Tyee]

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