Top 5 underwater reads

Published on: 16 October 2023

Author-illustrator Rob Biddulph reveals five of his favourite books set underwater.

The Whale Who Wanted More by Rachel Bright and Jim Field

This rhyming tale from the dream partnership of Bright and Field tells of Humphrey, a treasure-collecting whale who is busy searching the ocean for the ultimate trinket. In the course of his quest, he happens upon a crab called Crystal who makes him realise that actually, instead of just acquiring more stuff, he might have more to gain by sharing his unique gift with the world. This is a fabulously rich story with a great message and, needless to say, Jim’s incredible artwork instantly transports the reader to a mesmerising undersea world.

The Storm Whale by Benji Davies and The Fate of Fausto by Oliver Jeffers

Now, I’m slightly cheating with these two as the vast majority of the action in both takes place above the surface. But they are just too good to ignore.

Benji’s modern classic tells of a boy called Noi who discovers a small whale washed up on the beach. He decides to help the stranded creature by taking him home, putting him in the bath and having a chat with him (Noi’s father is a fisherman and is out working every day, so Noi is glad of the company). But what will happen when Dad gets home and finds a whale in the bath? This moving story about loneliness, kindness and empathy is a must for every bookshelf.

Oliver’s The Fate of Fausto could well be his masterpiece. It tells of Fausto, a rather pompous chap in a pinstripe suit who decides that he above everyone else has the right to own everything. He starts small by conquering a flower, then quickly moves on to a sheep, a tree, a field, a forest, a lake and a mountain. Still not satisfied, he sets his sights on the sea. Prone to a tantrum when he doesn’t get his own way, our non-swimming protagonist is last seen attempting a foot-stamp on the surface of the ocean before disappearing forever below the waves.

Both of these books are wonderfully spare when it comes to the story-telling, preferring to give the plot plenty of room to breathe, and they share an elegiac, painterly approach to the artwork that evokes a surprising amount of emotion. These are rare books that transcend the medium and would be equally at home on the wall of a gallery as they are on a bookshelf.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen is also a master of spare storytelling and, in particular, pacing. He is not scared to let the reader fill in the gaps and often allows a generous amount of space and silence to punctuate his books. This fabulous addition to the Hat series reads like a film plays. In a one-shot camera pan through the depths, we follow a tiny hat thief as he flees towards the safety of the tall undersea plants as his victim tails him. Jon allows the deceptively simple, atmospheric illustrations to do the majority of the heavy lifting plot-wise, and his visual gags land absolutely perfectly. This is an undersea story that has depth in more than one sense of the word.

A Match for A Mermaid by Eleanor Cullen and David Roberts

My final recommendation is this beautiful collaboration between Eleanor and David, part of the 10 Stories to Make a Difference collection. Malu, the mermaid queen, is looking for a consort and enlists her best friend Brooke to help with her subaquatic search. A raft of suitors turn up, but they are all discounted for various reasons – their hair is too short, their voices are too gruff or their faces are too rough. Eventually, Malu realises that, in fact, her ideal partner has been swimming right in front of her the whole time. This is a heart-warming tale of love, inclusivity and friendship, exquisitely illustrated by David, that will stay with you long after you have turned the final page.

Gigantic by Rob Biddulph is out now.

Topics: Seaside, Features

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